By Matt Popchock

Once again, we are coming to you live from press row at CONSOL Energy Center for some inter-conference AFL action between Pittsburgh and San Jose!  The Power, fresh off a huge win over the ArenaBowl champion Spokane Shock, enter Saturday with a record of 4-4, while the SaberCats make the long trip to the ‘Burgh with a record of 5-3.  We’ll be keeping you posted with game notes as the night goes on…

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7:20 PM – SaberCats take the field.  Usually they play some esoteric pop song to taunt the opposing team whenever they take the field at CONSOL Energy Center; this week it’s “Barbie Girl” by Aquae.  Sadly, I know the tune, which suddenly makes me feel old (and on top of that, I celebrated a birthday this past week)…

7:25 PM – Power take the field. DB Josh Lay officially reintroduced. Receiver Craig Fulton Jr. reintroduced as well; looks like he may be appearing in his second game with the Power tonight, with D.J. Hall out and Xavier Lee gone to the United Football League.

7:33 PM – San Jose wins coin toss, defers to second half. Power moving right to left to begin the game, Fulton Jr. lined up to receive the kick. Their offense outscored Spokane 37-14 in the second half of last week’s come-from-behind victory. Let’s see if that momentum carries over at all.

7:38 PM – After an offside call put them back at their own 3 yard line, and Fulton took a big hit from DB Eddie Moten on an incomplete pass (looked like it might have been a hair early, but oh well…), Bernard Morris takes it himself for a 25-yard keeper and the Power’s first first down.

7:41 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! On 3rd and 5, Morris tosses right side to Jason Willis, who gets a block and scampers in for the 15-yard score. 13th TD toss of the year by Morris, 9th TD catch of the year by Willis, who had the game-winner last week. Paul Edinger’s extra point works. 10:39 left, 1st quarter, 7-0 Power. (Power have now scored on six straight possessions dating back to last week, if memory serves.)

7:45 PM – Dumb penalty…a personal foul on fullback Chad Cook for shoving LB Gary Butler after a 7-yard completion to Burl Toler. But QB Mark Grieb comes right back with a first-down strike to Mervin Brookins to San Jose’s own 22. It’ll take a lot to rattle Grieb, one of the most prolific passers in AFL history.

7:47 PM – Josh Lay hasn’t missed a beat! He intercepts a deep ball thrown too far for Ben Nelson and takes it from the end zone to the Power’s 8 yard line.

7:50 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! Morris finds “The Joystick” open in the middle of the end zone for a 16-yard strike. 9th TD of the year for Mike Washington, 14th of the year and 2nd of the night for Morris. Edinger’s extra point is again good. A huge score there off the turnover makes it 14-0 Power, 6:41 left, 1st quarter. Grieb isn’t afraid to throw deep, so if the Power can force turnovers, score off them, and exploit San Jose’s revamped receiving corps, that bodes very well.

7:55 PM – The SaberCats get on the board for the first time, as Grieb, flushed out of the pocket, finds Ben Nelson open against the grain, and Nelson makes a nice move for an 11-yard catch-and-run. 3rd TD of the year for Nelson, who also made a nice block earlier in the drive that helped a first-down play materialize. Juan Gamboa’s extra point cuts the Power’s lead to 14-7, 4:20 left, 1st quarter. 41st TD pass of the year for Grieb, who ranked 7th in the AFL in that category coming in.

8:00 PM – Here we go again…Bernard Morris shaken up and not moving much after taking an intentional grounding penalty at his own 5. Finally, thankfully, Morris is helped up, and it appears he will stay in there.

8:02 PM – Pass intercepted over the middle by Jamario O’Neal, his first of the year. (By the way, Lay’s INT was his second, while I’m thinking of these things.) Ball appeared to be under-thrown. Chad Cook runs in for a 5-yard TD, his 18th rush TD of the year, on the very next play. Gamboa’s extra point is good, and the lead evaporates. 14-14, 3:10 left, 1st quarter. Cook now just one rush TD off the league lead.

8:05 PM – A lot of yellow on the field in this game, and I don’t mean the trim on the Power’s jerseys. Power came into this game with 337 yards in penalties, and San Jose came in with 417.

8:06 PM – The Power continue self-destructing, as a fumbled snap deep in their own territory is recovered by lineman Francis Maka.

8:09 PM – Wow…21 unanswered points by San Jose to close the quarter. On 3rd and 5, Grieb finds James Roe on a slant and puts a well-placed ball in his hands. Gamboa’s kick is good as the 1st quarter ends. 21-14 San Jose after one. 42nd TD pass of the season from Grieb, first TD of the year for Roe. Both these teams playing opportunistic football, but unfortunately for the Power, the SaberCats are doing it a little better. Need to clean up the miscues.

8:14 PM – Morris is hanging in there. First down pass by Morris to Washington to the San Jose 20 shortly after an errant kickoff by Gamboa brought it out to the Pittsburgh 20 per AFL rules.

8:18 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! Morris redeems himself after he is assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by finding Willis open near side for a 20-yard score. 10th of the year for Willis, 15th TD pass of the year for Morris, who has three tonight. A couple big catches by Washington to keep the drive going. But Edinger’s extra point is no good, so it remains 21-20 San Jose, 10:10 left, 2nd quarter.

8:22 PM – Like I said in my preview, don’t overlook Chad Cook. He rumbles for 20 yards, though he was aided by a missed tackle in the SaberCats backfield. First down to the Power 15.

8:23 PM – Grieb finds Roe again, despite some good coverage by Royce Adams, for another score. Third TD pass of the night for Grieb, 43rd of the season. Power catch a break, as Gamboa’s kick gets stuck inside the upright. Score remains 27-20 San Jose, 7:24 left, 2nd quarter.

8:26 PM – Nice special teams tackle by Maka after Fulton Jr. found a crease, but an offside penalty to San Jose moves the ball to the Pittsburgh 20. The laundry-tossing continues…

8:28 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! The breaks seem to be evening out; a deep ball was deflected straight up in the air, and give Washington credit for not giving up on the play, as he stands alone in the end zone and hauls it in easily for a 22-yard score. 10th of the year for Washington, 16th TD pass of the year for Morris, fourth tonight. But again, Edinger is wide…and this crowd does not like it. 27-26 San Jose, 5:37 left, 2nd quarter.

8:32 PM – Carlos Campbell just missed an INT…another on-the-money throw by Grieb…then a tipped ball clunks off the hands of Adams. Big break there for San Jose.

8:36 PM – Cook plunges in for a 2-yard touchdown, his second of the night, after a San Jose timeout, which gives him 19 on the year (19 was the league high going into tonight). Power just can’t tackle this guy for the life of them. San Jose, third in the league in 3rd down efficiency (53.2%), converted one thanks to Cook to keep the drive alive. Gamboa’s kick is good. 34-26 San Jose, 1:33 left, 2nd quarter.

8:38 PM – One-minute warning after the Power recover an onside kick. 2nd and goal Power at the San Jose 4 yard line.

8:41 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! Morris hits Washington underneath, and The Joystick shakes off three-time All-Arena selection Eddie Moten before trotting into the end zone…solid play by Washington! 3rd TD of the night for him, 5th of the night for Morris, who has picked up where he left off last week, those early gaffes not withstanding. Edinger makes it this time…34-33 San Jose, 0:55 left, 2nd quarter.

8:45 PM – Timeout San Jose. They have one left, Power have two left. 1st and 10 ‘Cats at their own 20, 0:36 left.

8:48 PM – Lonnell DeWalt, the converted jack linebacker, had been quiet throughout the half, but makes a nice tackle up the middle to deny Cook. Timeout San Jose, their last. 3rd and goal, 9 seconds left…

8:50 PM – The Power prevail! On 3rd and goal, they gang-tackle Cook, and with no timeouts left in San Jose head coach Darren Arbet’s pocket, the half ends. Hopefully that’s a shot in the arm for the Power, who trail the SaberCats 34-33 at the break.

This isn’t the kind of game the Power are used to; the SaberCats, in typical fashion, are leading a track-meet style football game. Having said that, Pittsburgh is hanging tough, and is counter-punching well on offense, despite the fact that Morris has been a bit rattled, and despite the fact that his counterpart, Mark Grieb, is making Pittsburgh’s defense look uncharacteristically ordinary. I have to give Grieb a lot of credit, because he’s showing what 12 years in the league will do for you, and he’s showing what an accurate thrower he is. The Power are definitely trying to get pressure to him, but he’s making big plays when he needs them.  You can see why he’s the second-leading passer in AFL history. Morris is holding his own too, so let’s not sell him short. The chemistry on offense seems to be stronger, especially between Morris and Mike Washington, whom he needs to keep looking for until San Jose finds an answer for him. But the Power’s defense needs at least one more stop, and they need to tackle Cook better. Until last week, Pittsburgh didn’t always finish games well, so the first few minutes of the third quarter could be very telling, especially considering San Jose gets the ball to start the second half.

Some 1st half numbers:

50 yards on 9 carries for Cook, 2 TD

Washington leads all WR with 64 yards on 6 catches, 3 TD

DeWalt actually is second on the team with 4.5 tackles, but you wouldn’t know it, because Grieb is doing a good job staying away from him. Adams has 7.0 total tackles to lead all defensive players.

Grieb and Morris actually put up identical figures…both 12-for-17 with one INT. Morris racked up 126 yards, 5 TD; Grieb 135 yards, 3 TD.

O’Neal, who recovered the fumble that led to San Jose taking its first lead, is tied with Chris Bruhn for the team lead in tackles with 3.0.

Speaking of which, that’s what the Power need to avoid in the second half: miscues. Those two turnovers that led to two quick San Jose scores loom large, and Pittsburgh has been chasing the SaberCats ever since.

9:08 PM – Excellent catch by Ben Nelson for a long first down to the Power 23. Royce Adams, again, did everything he could…

9:14 PM – Fumble by Roe recovered by Davon Benson of the Power! Moments later, Washington just barely drops what would have been a difficult TD pass…and the SaberCats get it right back, sadly, as Bruhn recovers a botched snap at the Pittsburgh 20. The Power have egregiously given away the ball a couple times. Can’t do that against such a seasoned team.

9:15 PM – Adams is snake-bitten, as he takes a pass interference penalty that moves the ball to the Pittsburgh 10 yard line. Offside by the San Jose offense on the next play, which is a recurring theme.

9:16 PM – Cook rumbles in for his 3rd TD of the night from 3 yards out. Gamboa’s extra point is good, 41-33 San Jose, 9:43 left, 3rd quarter. That’s three TD’s off turnovers by the SaberCats, which continues to be the prevailing story of this game. Big play on the drive was a check-down to wide-open lineman/eligible receiver Aaron Kia for a first down just as Grieb was hit by Gary Butler.

9:20 PM – Another great grab by Washington for a first down to the San Jose 15, which was preceded by Fulton Jr. breaking several tackles on what was easily his best kick return of the night to the Power’s own 20. Morris is then sacked for the first time tonight, by Eric Phillips.

9:22 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! DeWalt makes a nice sliding catch on a timing pattern, over his shoulder, for a huge 4th down conversion and score. Don’t want to give the ball right back to the SaberCats the way this half has gone.  Six TD passes for Morris tonight, who has a lot of answers. Give him credit. 10th touchdown reception of the year for DeWalt. Edinger’s kick is good…41-40 San Jose, 5:46 left, 3rd quarter.

9:26 PM – First official sack by the Power…Benson and Anthony DeGrate sandwich Mark Grieb.

9:29 PM – Once again, one thing Grieb has done really well is throw under pressure. Another first down for the ‘Cats. Sometimes it’s not your defense, it’s the other team’s offense.

9:30 PM – Grieb lobs another well-placed touchdown ball, this time to Burl Toler, his second of the season, from 10 yards out. Defensive pass interference declined. 4th TD pass of the night for Grieb. Gamboa’s kick is good…48-40 San Jose, 1:40 left, 3rd quarter. SaberCats have scored on six of their last seven drives.

9:35 PM – Morris scrambles and is tackled for a loss as the 3rd quarter ends. 48-40 San Jose. This is one of those games where my awards ballot will need to wait a while, if you know what I mean…

9:38 PM – Moten commits an obvious pass interference penalty, shoving intended receiver Washington. First down Power near midfield.

9:42 PM – Morris underthrows Jason Willis, and Moten picks it off. An illegal block in the back, the only silver lining on this play, puts San Jose back at its own 9. Accuracy is everything in a game like this; Morris just missed a couple of would-be TD passes to the same corner of the end zone on this drive. You hate to think this one could be a back-breaker, but let’s just say the Power defense needs to dig in…

9:47 PM – 4th down just inside Power territory. 8:00 left. Turning point.

9:48 PM – Turnover on downs! Too much heat in Grieb’s kitchen, and he overthrows James Roe downfield. Power take over with 7:48 left in regulation. Need a score. Siegfried also needs to think about when he needs to go for two, if necessary.

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9:52 PM – The Power turn it back over on downs. On 4th and short Morris missed Fulton Jr. breaking open in the end zone at the last second…and he knows it. Once again, the Power make a big play on defense, but hit their head on the proverbial offensive ceiling. San Jose ball at its own 18…5:43 left in regulation.

9:56 PM – Cook is stopped on 3rd and short at the Power 23…a false start penalty wipes out a 4th down conversion…and Grieb’s subsequent 4th down pass is broken up deep down the middle! Power still have life, down 48-40, ball on San Jose 18 yard line…3:16 left in regulation.

10:00 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! Washington is wide open near side for his 4th of the night, 12th of the year…but Morris’ two-point pass to the back corner is just out of his reach. Power catch another bad bounce on the ensuing onside kick, recovered by San Jose at the 5…48-46 ‘Cats, 1:30 left.

10:04 PM – One-minute warning. Should be a crazy minute too. 48-46 San Jose. 2nd and goal ‘Cats from the 5.

10:08 PM – After a non-play due to fan interference in the back of the end zone, 4th down comes up…and the catch by Burl Toler doesn’t matter, because he’s tackled short of the goal line! Power ball at their own 1. 0:41 left. What a game…

10:10 PM – Timeout Power.  Two left.  First down to Fulton Jr.  Another timeout. One left. 0:26 left in the game…

10:12 PM – A couple incompletions. 3rd and 10 from the Power 19. 19 seconds to go…

10:14 PM – TOUCHDOWN POWER! Willis was wide open on the right side, as his defender stumbled! 52-48 Power! 0:14 left, conversion pending…and DeWalt grabs it in the back of the end zone! 54-48 Power, 0:14 left. Wow with a capital “wow”…

10:18 PM – Two seconds left. Ball on Pittsburgh 19. One last play…and the SaberCats are stopped short of the end zone! Power win! 54-48! Unreal game! Power advance to 5-4, SaberCats fall to 5-4. More to come…

Offensive POTG – Grieb

Defensive POTG – Moten

Ironman – Cook

Playmaker – Washington

Catch of the Game – Washington TD on tipped ball

Highlight of the Game – Willis game-winning TD

Savoy Player of the Game – Washington

More to come…

Post-game press scrum highlights…

Head Coach Chris Siegfried: Not necessarily the most exciting game he’s ever coached, but they’ll take a win any way they can get it. Most impressed with how hard the defense fought. Starting center Sione Ohuafi lost with a shoulder injury later in the game; status for next game (@ Dallas May 28) is uncertain. Even amidst the worst losses of the season, the compete level of the team has never wavered, and now guys are really starting to believe they can win (“Winning is contagious, and losing is contagious as well”). At halftime knew they just had to clean up offensive mistakes; thought if they could get two defensive stops in second half, they could win. Mike Washington keeps finding ways to get open. Onside kick should’ve been recovered at end. “Very excited” about beating a team like San Jose, a lot of nice words about longtime coach Darren Arbet (“They’re a first-class organization…but so are we.”). Morris played well despite lower back injury, which affected a couple of his passes. Took advantage of an ideal matchup on DeWalt’s successful two-point conversion. Willis hadn’t gone in (pre-snap) motion a lot, so they felt they could throw to him for game-winning TD; San Jose “D” didn’t necessarily count on that play. Offense isn’t where it needs to be yet, but consistency is improving, and staying injury-free is a big factor. Bye week comes at a good time (“We could use about three bye weeks,” he said, laughing) for banged-up players. High praise for DB Eddie Moten. Defense played “lights out” in 4th quarter. High praise for Grieb, but Power’s DB’s got better as game went on. Not a lot of people who want to attack Josh Lay one-on-one; he’s still not 100 percent, but San Jose paid the price when they threw deep against him. Needs to provide better support on certain plays. Injuries/less turnover on roster is biggest general reason why team is finishing games better, as well as continuity with QB/WR’s. Wanted to go for two in the end all along to put more pressure on ‘Cats; defensive approach on San Jose’s last drive was stay back, watch out for gimmick plays, check-downs.

Jason Willis: On game-winning TD…”In my head, I was just thinking, ‘I gotta catch this…I gotta catch this…as soon as I was open, I knew the ball was coming [my way].” Team has proven it has chemistry, still has a long way to go, getting healthy at a good time. Likes to see guys besides Mike Washington and himself continue contributing offensively, team needs to continue spreading the ball around. Morris is good to work with, as good with his quick/short throws as he is with his long ones, his game is well-suited to the AFL. Some friendly competition (wagers being discussed…) between he and Washington on who can get most TD’s. This might be the most exciting game he’s been a part of in the AFL, though they admit it shouldn’t have been this close (i.e.: turnovers). Other than turnovers, this was a blueprint for how team needs to play moving forward. Defensive play of the Power really motivated the offense in the second half. Knew they would have to counter-punch San Jose’s offense. Bye week comes at a great time for him.

Mike Washington: As a receiver, it doesn’t matter as much who throws the ball, because it’s still your job to catch it, but Bernard definitely makes life easier, especially tonight. Team showed what they can be tonight…one of the most competitive teams in the league. Strides still need to be made, team needs to continue getting healthier. Defensive coordinator Mo Blanding gave another great halftime speech–and a great pre-game speech, for that matter (“When he talks [on the rare occasion he gives big speeches], players need to listen, because he means business.”).

One quick note…Cleveland has lost to Orlando, so the Power are in a virtual dead-heat with the Gladiators for the East Division lead (Cleveland 5-3, Pittsburgh 5-4).

More to come later, including some final numbers…

A couple of quick things…

In my game preview, I alluded to Mark Grieb’s father having West Mifflin ties…sure enough, there seemed to be a big San Jose contingent in Sections 110-111, thereabouts. Supposedly he was throwing a big tailgate before the game (if anyone knows whether that happened, and/or if you were there, let me know…).

I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t mention it was Burl Toler who caught the last pass of the game…and though Josh Lay didn’t necessarily make the tackle, he did make initial contact.  Forgot to mention that, as I got caught up in the excitement of that last drive…though I wasn’t the only one, believe me. It wasn’t the biggest crowd of the year, but there was palpable tension and excitement in the last minute, and they certainly did their part to make it feel like a big crowd.

Speaking of the crowd, some final numbers:

Attendance was 7,333. Bigger crowd than last week. A little below the league average, but attendance at C.E.C. for the season is still well above the league average.

San Jose outgained Pittsburgh 352-282, but they also ran eight more plays than Pittsburgh did. The numbers seem to bear out that the Power’s offense was just as efficient, despite the turnovers (case in point, the Power won. There were four of those by the Power–two fumbles lost, two picks–which makes this victory all the more impressive.

Power were 3-for-6 on third down, actually a tad better than the ‘Cats, who were 3-for-7. Telling stat, however, is three consecutive failed 4th down conversions in the 4th quarter. Only real troublesome stat is San Jose outgained Pittsburgh in the rushing department by a 2:1 clip (63 yards to 32). Actually, this is the first time since Week 4 (only the second time all year) the Power have not scored a rush TD.

Once again, though, the most meaningful stat was the fact that the Power outscored San Jose 21-14 in the second half. This is the second week in a row the Power have held an opponent to two touchdowns in the second half. They continue to get better at finishing games.

Bernard Morris: 24-of-39 (61.5%), 263 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT, sacked twice; also ran four times for 29 yards, though 27 came on one play

Mark Grieb: 27-of-41 (65.8%), 294 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, sacked once

Chad Cook: 13 rush, 63 yds, 3 TD

Mike Washington: led all WR with 12 catches, 120 yds, 4 TD

Jason Willis: 6 catches, 88 yds, 3 TD

Craig Fulton led the Power with 137 all-purpose yards (95 on kick returns)

WR Mervin Brookins led all players with 194 all-purpose yards (122 on kick returns)

Burl Toler: led San Jose with 8 catches, 77 yds, TD

James Roe: 7 catches, 53 yds, 2 TD

Royce Adams: led all defenders with 12.5 tackles (11 solo); one pass breakup, one forced fumble

Josh Lay: 5 solo tackles, one INT

Lonnell DeWalt: 5.5 tackles (4 solo); 9-yard TD catch, two-point conversion catch

Eddie Moten: led San Jose with 5 solo tackles; one pass breakup, one INT

Francis Maka: 2.5 tackles (2 solo), one sack, one tackle for loss, one fumble recovery

DL George Hypolite: two QB hurries, left game in final two minutes with apparent lower-body injury

Final thoughts:

Obviously you’d like their record to be a little better, but I couldn’t imagine a much better way for the Power to enter their second and final bye week of the 2011 season, as the team was visibly pumped up when they stormed the field after the final seconds. What goes around in this league can just as quickly come around. Just recently we looked at how the Power had lost three of four, and now they’ve won three of four. To do so, they evened their home record by beating two solid teams at CONSOL Energy Center and beating them in similar fashion: by making big plays on defense late, and turning that momentum into big plays on offense. Again, this team seems to be developing chemistry, particularly on offense, and I almost think opponents underestimate how good this defense can be, simply because Pittsburgh is a (pure) expansion team. I feel the same way about Mike Washington, who has played lights out the last two games, and Bernard Morris seems to be in a zone. Furthermore, the Power, as I said, are finishing games, and they did a solid job getting heat in Grieb’s kitchen, and tightening up coverage (as Coach Siegfried said) as the game wore on. The offensive consistency and execution still has a little ways to go, but it is definitely improving. Hopefully the bad snaps won’t be an issue in Dallas May 28, a game that starting center Sione Ohuafi may miss…which could spell more trouble. By that same token, hopefully the bye week allows this team to continue to heal, and hopefully Neal Purvis can rest his bad leg and continue to help the line. This game, for the most part, reflects how the Power must play in Dallas in two weeks to keep the pressure on Cleveland, because the Vigilantes are another team that is well coached and can score almost at will. It also reflects how they must play when Cleveland comes here in two weeks, which could be a crucial juncture of the Power’s season.

The live blog is slated to return Saturday, June 4th (like they say in show biz, leave ’em wanting more) for that home game against the Gladiators. In the meantime, be sure to check out in two weeks for our Pittsburgh/Dallas preview and AFL news/notes.

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See “yinz” soon!