PHOENIX – The road to ArenaBowl XXVII might go through Cleveland, but the world champion Arizona Rattlers served notice Sunday night that they’re not about to give up the Foster Trophy that has resided the past two years in the Valley of the Sun.
It will be the Rattlers (15-3, 2-0) and the Gladiators (17-1, 2-0) in the Arena Football League’s biggest game at 5 p.m. (Phoenix time) Aug. 23 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Arizona punched its ticket with a wire-to-wire beating of the rival San Jose SaberCats (13-5, 1-1), 72-56, in front of 8,581 raucous fans and a national television audience that watched the game on ESPN2.
With the victory, the Rattlers:
* Clinched their ninth ArenaBowl appearance in franchise history, including the past four years. Arizona is looking to become the first team in AFL history to win three straight championships since the Detroit Drive in 1988-90.
* Wrapped up a ninth National Conference championship, including four straight.
* Finished the 2014 season undefeated (11-0) at home. Arizona is 40-5 since 2011 (including postseason) on Ak-Chin Indian Community Field at US Airways Center.
The victory also atoned for a 62-33 loss to the SaberCats on June 27, ending the Rattlers’ AFL record-setting winning streak at 14 games. For San Jose, the loss was another postseason disappointment at the hands of the Rattlers, who have knocked the SaberCats out of the playoffs each of the past three years.
Arizona looked every bit like the team that led the League in total offense this season, scoring on 11 straight possessions. Quarterback Nick Davila made one of his strongest cases for the League’s MVP award by completing 20 of 34 passes for 275 yards and eight touchdowns. He also ran for two more scores in short-yardage situations. The fifth-year player didn’t throw an interception, and he wasn’t sacked.
Davila, the Russell Athletic Offensive Player of the Game, did a masterful job of spreading the ball around to six different players, including six passes for 107 yards and three touchdowns to wide receiver Rod Windsor. Windsor had the Cutters Catch of the Game when he hauled in a pass over the middle, then bounced off three would-be tacklers and scored with 47 seconds left in the third quarter.
Wide receivers Kerry Reed, the J. Lewis Small Playmaker of the Game, and Tysson Poots each had two touchdown catches. Even guard Michael Huey got in on the action when he caught a pass from Davila, leaped over a defender and turned the play into a 14-yard touchdown with four seconds left in the second quarter – the AFL Highlight of the Game.
Reed also came up with leaping, one-handed interception of starting San Jose quarterback Nathan Stanley that set up one of Davila’s two rushing touchdowns that gave Arizona a 21-7 lead with 2:56 left in the first quarter. That would turn out to be the end of the night for Stanley. He was replaced by Russ Michna, who was activated from injured reserve July 31 and did not play last week in the quarterfinal game against the Spokane Shock.
Michna, who last took the field May 31 in a 51-42 loss to the Rattlers, completed 21 of 37 passes for 269 yards and six touchdowns. He was intercepted by defensive back Marquis Floyd late in the second quarter, which set up Huey’s touchdown catch. Michna also was sacked four times. In all, Arizona totaled five sacks – two apiece by defensive linemen Anttaj Hawthorne and rookie Leon Mackey, and one by Mack linebacker Tyre Glasper.
Floyd led all defenders with 9.5 tackles and two pass breakups to go with his interception, earning him Riddell Defensive Player of the Game.
The star for San Jose clearly was wide receiver and kick returner Reggie Gray, who totaled 321 all-purpose yards (148 receiving, 173 kick returns) – second-most in an AFL playoff game. Lamont Cooper of the Milwaukee Mustangs had 348 all-purpose yards in July 2000.