SAP CENTER — The San Jose SaberCats got themselves back into the win column by defeating the Los Angeles KISS 63-35 Saturday night.
It was a battle of new school versus old school, as SaberCats rookie quarterback Nathan Stanley delivered a dominant performance against legendary veteran Aaron Garcia.
Garcia — who holds nearly every passing record in the AFL — continued to struggle while manning the KISS offense, completing just 19-of-43 passes for 281 yards while throwing four interceptions.
Stanley, filling in for injured Russ Michna, had a much better night, completing 25-of-37 passes for 280 yards and seven touchdowns while tossing just one interception.
The rookie’s solid performance was enough to earn praise from Coach Darren Arbet after the game:
“He’s getting better and better every week. It means a lot to him. He comes [early], he’s there until seven o’clock watching film, getting it done. I’m proud of him.”
Receivers Reggie Gray, Jason Willis and Dominique Curry all had 60+ receiving yards, with Gray and Willis catching two touchdowns and Curry leading the corps with three.
After getting off to a slow start in last week’s contest against the Arizona Rattlers, Stanley ignited the offense early by leading the SaberCats on a two-play march to the end zone on the game’s opening drive.
After connecting with Reggie Gray on a 39-yard pass up the middle, Stanley found receiver Jason Willis in the corner of the end zone on a slant route for the first score of the game.
While it was just the first of many scores for San Jose on the night, Stanley spoke of the importance of the opening drive after the game:
“It’s great to go out and score on that opening drive. It gives your offense confidence and kinda makes the defense unsettled a little bit. But I gotta give credit to my O-line, they did a really good job tonight protecting. And receivers did a good job getting open.”
But the LA KISS would rebut with a quick score of their own. After a 39-yard return by defensive back AJ Cruz gave the KISS a short field to work with, offensive lineman Julius Wilson ran in a 17-yard screen pass to tie the game at seven all.
Though each team needed just a combined three total plays to get on the board during the opening drives, both the SaberCats and the KISS would encounter stiffer defensive sets during their second possessions.
The KISS forced the SaberCats to fourth down twice during the drive, but Stanley came up with clutch throws to keep the charge alive. He capped it off by hitting Dominique Curry near the wall, who spun his way into the end zone on a 15-yard reception.
It was San Jose’s turn to step up on defense, as their defensive backs forced deflections and dropped passes to get the first turnover of the game at their 14-yard line.
The SaberCats capitalized on the turnover, as Stanley found Curry in the back of the end zone for his second touchdown reception of the day to start the second period.
It would be the first of seven turnovers forced by the SaberCats defense on the night. DB Simeon Castille addressed the defensive effort by the team following the game:
“As a defense we try to pride ourselves on taking the will and taking the fight out of the other team, and just to create turnovers and give our offense more chances, more opportunities to score.”
The two teams would trade touchdowns again on receptions from KISS wide receiver Donovan Morgan and Willis, who pulled in his second touchdown catch of the game.
But the SaberCats defense would step up big again to force their second turnover on downs with just 40 seconds remaining in the half.
Stanley needed just 30 of those seconds to widen the lead, as Reggie Gray would haul in his first touchdown of the game in the back of the end zone despite being held.
Clevan Thomas would go on to record an interception-his second in two games- on a hail Mary by Garcia to close the half out for San Jose, who went into the locker room up 35-14.
The KISS opened the second half up with strong showings on both sides of the ball. After a questionable penalty gave the KISS a new set of downs, Garcia would find Morgan on a 26-yard bomb in the end zone to cut the deficit to just two scores.
Defensive back Roderick Cohn would put the KISS offense back on the field after picking a deep pass from Stanley near their own 10-yard line for the first turnover by the SaberCats of the game.
The KISS pulled within seven after Garcia completed yet another deep pass in the end zone — this time on fourth down — to Matt Estrada.
Stanley recovered from his pick on the next drive, going on to complete all three of his pass attempts before fullback J.J Payne would work his way into the end zone off the hand off for a 3-yard rush.
The rookie’s ability to recuperate was just one of the veteran-like qualities he displayed during the game. Stanley also looked comfortable in the pocket while going through his progressions, making quality decisions and strong throws.
Though he looked composed, Stanley said he still has ways to go in his AFL career:
“I’ve got a lot to learn, learning every day. But I try to shake the rookie feeling off … It’s good to have these kind of games. Defenses kinda take that edge, get a little boost when they hear they’re going against a rookie QB so it’s good for me, good for my confidence to have these kinds of games.”
Thomas opened up the fourth quarter for the SaberCats on a strong note by recording his second interception of the night early in the frame.
The pick would come back to haunt Los Angeles as the SaberCats converted the turnover to points after Reggie Gray brought down a 21-yard touchdown pass, his second of the night.
The KISS refused to go quietly though, mounting a late fourth-quarter comeback that began with Morgan recording his fourth touchdown catch of the game with just under six minutes to go in the game.
Los Angeles quickly got the ball back after Payne fumbled the ball near the goal line. But Castille would drive the nail in the coffin by intercepting Garcia on two consecutive possessions, returning one for a touchdown in the final minutes.
Although his two picks are sure to give Garcia nightmares, Castille had nothing but praise for the veteran:
“Obviously AG is one of the best in the business. He’s been doing it forever. … When I first got in in 2012, everybody was talking about Aaron Garcia and how good he was, and he’s lived up to his reputation.”
The SaberCats look to start a new win streak as they take on the Spokane Shock next Saturday at SAP Center at 7:30 p.m.