Jason Willis had seen this before.
CONSOL Energy Center. San Jose SaberCats. Seconds to spare. The game on the line. The ball sailing perilously toward the back of the end zone, capping a calamitous comeback once it reached the hands of its intended target.
The Pittsburgh Power had also seen this before.
Not since Willis wore their own colors had they seen it end well.
With coverage provided by Brandon Freeman, and a desperate assist from fellow defensive back Sergio Gilliam, the ball sailed over the latter's head, through those waiting hands of Willis, and over the back wall.
"We wanted to give them something simple, like man-to-man, and stick with our guys," said Gilliam, who had thwarted an earlier San Jose drive with an end-zone interception, of the pivotal play.
Willis, who caught a game-winning score in Pittsburgh against San Jose in 2011, this time couldn't seize the moment before Freeman's free hand sabotaged it.
Maybe what new head coach Ron James said next wasn't as poetic as the rebellious anthem of the Beastie Boys (or maybe he just needed visibly giddy co-owner Lynn Swann to spruce up the press conference with some electric guitar), but it should resonate just as well.
"You have to earn the right to win," James said after his Power evened their record in a 48-47 nail-biter over the Pacific Division-leading SaberCats Saturday. "That's what I tell the team every week."
Until Nathan Stanley's two-point pass fell incomplete, the Power hadn't earned much besides sardonic Facebook posts on a weekly basis. For at least this week, it should feel good to say they reaped what they sowed on the field.
"What you do during the week directly reflects how you're able to perform during the game, and we earned the right to win this week," James repeated. "The players were attentive. They worked hard."
Quarterback Tommy Grady followed Gilliam's pick with a 40-yard drive that included a gutsy 4th-and-10 heave to Aaron Lesue down the sideline.
With just over three minutes left in regulation, and Pittsburgh in front, 48-34, Lesue appeared to pull in a blood-pressure-reducing first TD in a Power uniform on another fourth down play. Despite a judicious challenge by James, officials deemed Lesue did not maintain enough control of the ball before it was ripped away after he hit the turf.
That the score was not allowed to stand was a travesty, and the league should be grateful it didn't matter. That's because, through all the bad things that have happened, could have happened, and did happen to the Pittsburgh Power, James did indeed stick with his guys, and those guys stuck together.
"Part of the [responsibility] of a new coach is making sure players understand the new system, and play the way you want them to play."
The Power began by playing that way—way better than anyone imagined. They stunned the crowd and the 'Cats by building first-half leads of 21-0 and 35-7, scoring off two other Stanley interceptions, not to mention a bad snap fumbled away by the rookie signal-caller. Offensively, they only yielded one turnover on downs in each half.
"With San Jose having a young quarterback, and knowing some of the situations he would be in, we were able to make the most of it—not so much disguising anything, but just anticipating," James said.
Grady threw for 94 yards and four touchdowns, running for another, before the break.
"We got them into situations where we knew what they were doing," he affirmed. "We just kept on hammering. Everyone came out focused, and we executed pretty well."
But right before the break came exactly the kind of bad break that always seemed inevitable when the Power play. A net recovery TD by David Hyland, who took advantage of the puzzling temporary absence of Lesue, Pittsburgh's regular kick returner, gave life to San Jose.
The Power then had to withstand the massive push-back James expected from a team that seems to have the material to play for a championship this season.
Just as Prechae Rodriguez, who now has seven TDs in two games, dominated the first two quarters, the veteran receiving tandem of Huey Whittaker and Reggie Gray took over the game for the SaberCats in the second half while the Power offense tried to shorten it. An acrobatic leaning catch by Gray beyond the wall provided the final margin.
Champions overcome. The Power are far from champions, but that's what they did in their Week 3 upset.
They overcame injuries to Rodriguez, who returned from a leg ailment, and to star defensive back Virgil Gray, who also returned from an injury that followed his second INT in as many games.
They overcame the odds.
They overcame themselves.
"Maybe it comes as a surprise to them," Gilliam said of the SaberCats. "But not to the guys in our locker room. This is what we can do when we all do our jobs."
"There were some instances where we didn't play the way we will play in the future," James said. "There were some bad mental errors, and we have to correct that moving on to next week."
Again, that reads not "the way we want to," but rather, "the way we will."
Again, the Power are far from champions. They have to avoid plummeting back to the level of their competition when they meet the winless San Antonio Talons in the Alamodome Friday at 8:30 p.m. EDT on ESPN3 to even be called the second-place team in their own division. Grady, to wit, has to improve upon that modest 50 percent completion rate from Week 3.
James, however, could be a champion of change. He is committed to giving Pittsburgh a product worth watching and a product that more than the 4,309 guarded optimists in the building last weekend will want to watch.
His first victory proves the Steel City might finally have an AFL team that can match his steel resolve.
Statistics courtesy of Pittsburgh Power Football. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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