Suffice it to say that it was a long weekend for the New Orleans VooDoo in sunny San Jose, California.
While the sun was shining outside throughout the stay, the VooDoo did not see the light of day in a 55-31 beatdown at the hands of traditional power San Jose before 9,251 pleased fans Saturday night at HP Pavilion. The loss snapped a three-game win streak and a three-game road winning streak for the VooDoo.
Anytime you head west, it is a long trek for the VooDoo. Flights are frequently of the connecting variety, some which require odd geographic routes (can you say out of the way?). Sometimes, confusion reigns and players, coaches and staff end up with very, very long days after a long night. That was the case for the VooDoo this time around.
It started with the game Saturday night.
After taking a 3-0 lead on a 42-yard field goal by Gary Cismesia on the first possession of the game, the VooDoo would never lead again as they were thoroughly dominated by a better team.
Mark Grieb connected with James Roe on a 14-yard touchdown pass and Nick Pertuit's extra point made it 7-3.
On the next New Orleans possession, Andre Jones came up with his first of two interceptions, stepping in front of a short out route and returning it 19 yards for a score to make it 14-3. When Grieb hit Samora Goodson with a 14-yard touchdown pass, San Jose had a commanding 20-3 lead after one quarter, a lead the SaberCats would not relinquish.
The highlight of the night came early in the second quarter when Kurt Rocco connected with fullback Joe Alajajian on a 28-yard touchdown. Alajajian showed great agility for a big man (6'4, 300), leaping over one defender and running through another en route for a score to make it 20-10.
Grieb made the bright spot short lived for New Orleans, connecting with Fred Williams on a seven-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-10. Rocco came back with a 31-yard scoring toss to Josh Bush to cut the deficit to 27-17.
Grieb then found Williams with an 18-yard touchdown pass to make it 34-17 before L.J. Castile hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from Rocco to make it 34-24 at halftime.
New Orleans came out in the second half and got a key defensive stop but the momentum shifted quickly.
Gabe Nyenhuis blocked Cismesia's 42-yard field goal attempt and Joe Sykes returned it three yards for a score to make it 41-24 SaberCats.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, the VooDoo got as close as they would get, putting their only second half points on the board as reserve quarterback Brian Zbydniewski found Quorey Payne in the flat. He beat a defensive back's attempted tackle and sprinted 34 yards for a score to make it 41-31 with 14:53 to play in the game.
The SaberCats responded quickly, on their first play from scrimmage, as Goodson snared a 28-yard touchdown toss from Grieb to make it 48-31 with 13:12 to play.
After an interception by Jones of Zbydniewski, Grieb found Williams with a nine-yard touchdown pass to make it 55-31.
The New Orleans offense was anemic throughout, producing a season-low 31 points. Rocco was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter on a personal foul blow delivered by Tim McGill. Rocco suffered a lower back injury though he was feeling a bit better while sitting for a long while in the San Jose airport Sunday.
Under constant pressure and knocked down frequently, Rocco suffered through his worst game of the season, completing just 11-of-30 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. He was sacked twice. Rocco did establish a new single season record for passing yards in VooDoo history. Zbydniewski was just 4-of-12 for 65 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Rocco missed a couple of receivers who were open deep while Zbydniewski missed one as well. There were a couple of drops which hindered the VooDoo as well as the offense experienced a total breakdown.
New Orleans, which has thrived on winning the turnover battle all season long, turned the ball over four times while forcing a pair of turnovers. Alvin Ray Jackson had his league-leading 13th interception of the season while Demarcus Robinson came up with his sixth of the year. Bush had six catches for 65 yards and a score.
Grieb eclipsed the 100 touchdown pass mark again, reaching 105 on the year, a new single season high for the 12-year AFL veteran.
Grieb connected on 22-of-30 passes for 242 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions. Goodson caught nine passes for 107 yards and two scores while Williams had six catches for 77 yards and three touchdowns.
Despite missed opportunities for New Orleans, it was a convincing win for San Jose.
"We got beat up tonight emotionally and physically," said VooDoo coach Pat O' Hara. "We got our tails handed to us tonight. We got taken behind the shed and beat up on."
Clearly, the Northern Conference is the much better conference in the AFL. New Orleans is 1-5 against the north, including a pair of losses to San Antonio, a convincing loss to Arizona, an overtime loss at Spokane and a win at Utah on the road.
"San Jose is a very good football team and they played well tonight," said O' Hara. "I take responsibility for the loss. We have to rebound and focus on a tough Tampa Bay team next weekend."
Fortunately, the VooDoo are finished with the Northern Conference. Now 8-8, the VooDoo are tied for first in the American Conference South Division with Jacksonville and Georgia with two games remaining against division opponents. New Orleans currently owns the tie-break over both Jacksonville (point differential) and Georgia (VooDoo win over the Force).
If the VooDoo can win at Tampa Bay next Saturday night and close with a home win over Georgia on July 21, New Orleans will win its division and finish as the second-seed in the American Conference. One more win could net the VooDoo a playoff berth. Two losses would place the VooDoo in jeopardy of missing the playoffs though it is still possible under that scenario to qualify for the postseason.
Saturday night, the young VooDoo discovered how far they have to travel (no pun intended) to reach the upper echelon of the AFL as they were handled easily by a traditional power. The SaberCats won AFL titles in 2002, 2004 and 2007. Now 11-6, San Jose can clinch a playoff spot with a win at home against Iowa next weekend.
"The goal is not just to make the playoffs, but to get to the tournament and have a chance at the big prize, so we still have a lot of work ahead of us," said SaberCats Owner and Head Coach Darren Arbet. "The guys understand that we are taking it one play at a time, not one game at a time, just one play at a time. That is all we are concerned about right now, getting better every day."
As if the long trek to San Jose and the tough loss were not enough, much of the VooDoo traveling party found itself stranded in San Jose as a result of a reservation snafu with many players still traveling as of Sunday evening after being at the San Jose airport at 5 a.m. The early bird special turned into the midnight express for several coaches and players, who experienced an 18-hour travel day. As a result, players were given off Monday.
O' Hara has done an excellent job with a young team in overcoming adversity throughout much of the season. He will be challenged to do so again, attempting to convince his team that they must still believe and trying to keep morale high after a difficult trip, in more ways than one.
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