PHOENIX, AZ- The third-seeded San Jose SaberCats (12-7) took on the second-seeded Arizona Rattlers (14-5) as the two teams renewed their incendiary rivalry in their third meeting of the season. The playoff atmosphere was palpable, as both teams traded blows back and forth in front of 7,545 fans at the US Airways Center. Once again it came down to the fourth quarter, a quarter that felt like a game in itself because of the dramatic back and forth action. Eventually when the clock did hit zero, it was the Rattlers who managed to land the last blow and hold off the SaberCats.
It was an uncharacteristic start to the game for the SaberCats offense as they failed to score on two consecutive drives. Both teams also managed to intercept the opposing quarterback, as the SaberCats defense managed to pull down three interceptions, which helped to limit the Rattler offense. Arizona managed to jump out to a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but San Jose stormed back with a quick strike touchdown on their first drive of the second quarter as SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb found wide receiver Huey Whittaker for a wonderful over the shoulder grab as Whittaker crashed into the wall making the score 14-7. Whittaker struck again, this time with 8:29 to go in the second quarter as he intercepted quarterback Nick Davila’s errant pass that bounced off the field goal netting. He followed that up with his second touchdown catch of the half, this time a seven yard score after Davila threw another interception giving San Jose the ball back.
All-in-all it was a bizarre first half of play, marred by turnovers and erratic offense. The Rattlers managed to cling to a slim lead at 21-14 going into the locker rooms at halftime.
Arizona started the third quarter with the football and Davila found wide receiver Maurice Purify for an 18-yard score to put the Rattlers up 28-14. The SaberCats would answer with a score of their own, as Whittaker made his third touchdown grab of the game as Grieb found him for a four yard strike, bringing the SaberCats back to within one score at 28-21. It was a quarter in which each team only managed to score one touchdown as the pace slowed significantly.
As has been the case in the previous two games, it all came down to the fourth quarter. If you wanted more action, it came in absolute waves, and in almost every form imaginable in the fourth quarter. There was a 25-yard field goal by Rattlers kicker Chris Gould to open up the scoring, a rushing touchdown by the SaberCats Whittaker, his fourth total touchdown of the game; it also gave San Jose their first lead of the game 35-31. There were two interceptions returned for touchdowns, one by SaberCats defensive back Andre Jones, and the other by Rattlers defensive back Arkeith Brown. Arizona wide receiver Purify and SaberCats wide receiver Fred Williams also added two receiving touchdowns each . The deciding factor was when San Jose attempted an onside kick and recovered the football with 1:03 to go in the fourth and trailing by only three at 44-41. But the play went to review and it was ruled that the SaberCats had illegally touched the ball, thus the ball was given back to Arizona and they never relinquished the lead again.
Grieb ended the game going 26-57 for 263 yards and five touchdowns. The leading receiver statistically for the San Jose was Williams who finished the game with ten catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns. But the star on offense was wide receiver Huey Whittaker who caught nine passes for 87 yards and three scores, Whittaker also rushed for a touchdown.
The SaberCats defense was a force; it essentially kept the SaberCats in the game, as it stifled the high-powered Arizona offense. They were able to force last year’s MVP quarterback Davila into four interceptions, as they pressured the signal caller all night. Defensive back Andre Jones had two interceptions and returned one 20-yards for a touchdown. Defensive back Tanner Varner also had an interception as did linebacker Huey Whittaker.
For the Rattlers offense Davila went 21-42 for 246 yards and six touchdowns. Wide receiver Maurice Purify was superb, catching 10 passes for 134 yards and four touchdowns and wide receiver Kerry Reed caught six passes for 56 yards.