SAP CENTER — The San Jose SaberCats clinched a playoff berth after roughing up division rival Spokane Shock with a 47-37 trouncing Saturday night.
Quarterback Nathan Stanley had a solid night, completing 18-of-31 passes for 240 yards. But it was San Jose’s defense that stole the show.
The SaberCats harassed Spokane’s offense all night, disallowing any sort of rhythm with one of the league’s best defenses.
The Shock — who came into the game with a league-leading 30 sacks — were beat at their own game as the SaberCats got to quarterback Bryan Zbydniewski eight times by game’s end.
Francis Maka led the SaberCats with 3.5 sacks, Jason Stewart followed with two,while Joe Sykes and Marc Schiechl each added one of their own for a total loss of 38 yards.
Though Maka was the star of the night, he praised the defensive lines group effort during the win:
“We have people we can trust in every position on defense. The D-line, I can’t do anything without them and we can’t do anything without the DB’s.”
Plenty of SaberCats joined in on Maka’s party, and the linebacker admitted that players can be a bit selfish in the sack category:
“We like to play as a team, but everybody wants the sack for themselves. So it’s bittersweet. We get a stop, we get a sack but you want it to be yours. But I’m always proud of my D-line and my DB’s.”
After a 57-yard kickoff return gave the Shock an early lead, Spokane’s defense forced a turnover on downs with the aid of a few sloppy plays by the SaberCats.
San Jose recovered the ball quickly as linebacker Francis Maka came up with a fumble recovery on the first play of Spokane’s drive.
After their pass-heavy drive stalled out during their opening sequence, the SaberCats went to their ground game to try to break the Spokane defense. San Jose went on to rush four out of their next six plays, ending the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from Dominique Curry.
Maka continued to terrorize the Spokane offense on their next drive, forcing the Shock’s second turnover of the game with a fourth down sack of Zbydniewski.
It would be just the first of many on the night. Head coach Darren Arbet spoke about the defensive effort after the game:
“They played great. They’ve been the backbone of the team. They’ve been very consistent week in and week out, getting pressure on the quarterback and covering.”
After tying the game up on their opening drive following a rushing touchdown by Terrance Carter, Spokane DB Bryant Nnabuife forced a turnover by intercepting Stanley’s pass after the ball deflected off a referee’s head.
Spokane would recapture a 17-14 lead after a 21-yard field goal by kicker Taylor Rowan, but the SaberCats would regroup on their next drive.
Receiver Jason Willis picked up 46 yards on the opening play of the drive after some fancy footwork turned him loose along the sidelines, before JJ Payne capped the drive with a 1-yard rush to put San Jose back in the lead.
The Shock would rebut when Nick Truesdell hauled down a 6-yard pass between two defenders to give Spokane a 24-21 advantage.
Replays appeared to show that Truesdell may have bobbled the ball against the padding, but Arbet was not granted a challenge despite throwing the challenge flag.
Although Arbet felt the play was called incorrectly, he took some fault in the way it was handled:
“Looking back at it I should of called a time out to give them more time to look at it because with a minute left in the game, I can’t throw the flag, it only goes to the booth … I was watching him, he didn’t see it.”
The ruling may have lit a fire under the SaberCats, as Stanley and receiver Reggie Gray went on to connect on both plays in the following drive, including a highlight reel 42-yard reception from Gray in the end zone that gave the SaberCats a 27-24 lead heading into halftime.
Stanley was perfect to open up the second half, connecting on all five of his pass attempts before adding on to San Jose’s lead with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Rod Harper.
San Jose began to break the game open midway through the third after a goal line stand by the SaberCats defense stopped Spokane just short of the end zone for their second turnover on downs.
Stanley strung together another masterful passing display on the following drive, connecting with Curry who spun off two tackles for a 29-yard touchdown to widen the margin.
After converting yet another turnover to points for the Sabercats, Stanley spoke about the defenses ability to impact the offensive side of the ball:
“It’s huge, it’s huge. Stops are hard to come by … so anytime our defense can get a stop, it’s just momentum that swings over on the offensive side, it just really helps out the offense.”
Spokane never was able to recover, being held scoreless in the third quarter and putting just 13 more points on the board in fourth while allowing the SaberCats to take the season series.
The Sabercats get their second bye of the season next week before returning to action against the Arizona Rattlers on June 27 at SAP Center at 7:30 p.m.