Defense, new QB Rowley shine in 38-32 home loss to San Jose

After Friday night's 38-32 loss to the San Jose SaberCats, Portland Thunder coach Matthew Sauk was livid.

He wasn’t mad at his Arena Football League expansion team or because his players remained winless after five games.

“I’m sick and tired of the game not being decided by them,” Sauk said.

Down by six points at Moda Center with 4:30 left, QB Kyle Rowley — in his Thunder debut after being traded by Orlando on Monday — led Portland on a 37-yard drive to the Sabercats' 8-yard line.

But on fourth-and-8, Rowley’s pass bounced off the goal post and fell to the ground. A SaberCats defender had blanketed Rowley’s target in the end zone, and Sauk wanted a pass-interference call.

“One-hundred percent, that was a 'PI,' he said. "Anytime a defensive back’s hands are behind my player's back, that’s PI.”

San Jose, with the ball back on downs, converted a first down, and the game was over.

AFL officials have infuriated Sauk all season.

“I can only send so many plays to the league (for review),” he said.

Sauk also wasn’t happy with middle linebacker TJ Fatinikun’s ejection after a skirmish featuring punches by players in both uniforms.

“The hardest part is keeping people in the game," Sauk said. "We’re always the second person, and we’re always getting caught.

"You have to be able to not react, but it’s getting ridiculous.”

Despite the loss before an announced crowd of 9,075, the Thunder defense continued to cause opposing offenses fits. This time, it forced five turnovers and held the AFL's second-highest scoring team 21 points below its season average.

“I’m so proud of our defense," Sauk said. "They are absolutely shutting people down.”

The Thunder even held the prolific SaberCats offense scoreless and forced two fumbles in the first quarter. The highlight play came when Thunder defensive lineman Ayo Idowu wrestled the ball from fullback Odie Armstrong and rumbled seven yards to the end zone for Portland’s first touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, Thunder defensive back Varmah Sonie, named defensive player of the game, stopped one drive with an interception in the end zone and returned the ball 28 yards to the Portland 21.

Also, after struggling in the first half, Rowley found his form. The 6-0 former Brown University star, a 35-year-old AFL vet, went 10 of 25 for 90 yards passing in the first half, with one interception. After intermission, he was 11 of 20 for 154 yards.

Rowley’s high point was a strike to a wide-open Douglas McNeil III on a fourth-down corner rout early in the fourth quarter. The 48-yard touchdown gave Portland a 32-31 lead.

Rowley missed a few other potential big plays, but Sauk said the QB "came in here and did a good job," adding that "there were times he was a bit rusty.”

Rowley had only one practice with the Thunder, but he knew Sauk’s offense from having played elsewhere for the coach.

“In Arena Football, a lot of the plays are the same from team to team, but the terminology is different," Rowley said. "The terminology (under Sauk) came back to me during practice.”

Though the Thunder offense ranks at the bottom of the AFL, Rowley said he is confident that with him at the helm, it will improve.

“I’m very optimistic," he said. "We could’ve won that game. My goal is to score 70 to 80 points.”

And, after shuffling through three other quarterbacks throughout the first four games, Sauk believes he has finally found his guy under center.

“Kyle’s our starter, and he will be our starter for the near future,” Sauk said.

San Jose snapped a three-game skid and improved to 4-4. QB Russ Michna tossed the deciding 4-yard TD pass to wide receiver Rod Harper with 5:28 remaining.

McNeill led Thunder receivers with six catches for 106 yards and two touchcowns.

Former Western Oregon University fullback Dustin Risseuw, signed by Portland earlier in the week after an open tryout, recovered two Thunder kickoffs and ran for a TD.

Portland next game is at the Jacksonville Sharks, 4 p.m. PT Saturday.

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