The Talons' inaugural season in San Antonio came to a screeching halt Friday night at the Alamodome, ended by a heartbreaking 35-34 loss to the Utah Blaze in the first round of the Arena Football League playoffs.
Beaten twice by San Antonio in the regular season, Utah held the Talons' high-powered offense to only 14 points in the second half after taking a 21-20 halftime lead.
Cheered on by a crowd of 9,391, the Talons drove to the Utah 3 on their final possession before quarterback Aaron Garcia was sacked for a 5-yard loss on fourth-and-goal by linebacker Joe Montensen with 2:50 left.
It was a bitter end for the Talons, who moved from Tulsa, Okla., to San Antonio last September and surprised the AFL by finishing the regular season with the best record in the National Conference.
"It was a long, hard season," Talons coach Lee Johnson said, blinking back tears. "It was a long haul. I know we had something special. We could have won it all. From where we started to where we finished, the the way we had to fight and scratch, I'm really proud of these guys."
Montensen's sack of Garcia was the third fourth-down stop of the game for Utah, which also intercepted a Garcia pass in the Blaze end zone on a third-and-goal at the Utah 12 late in the second quarter.
Penalties also negated two Garcia TD passes on consecutive possessions in the second quarter. Will Mulder intercepted Garcia's pass in the end zone three plays after the second TD was nullified by a holding penalty.
Squandered opportunities cost Talons
"Thirty-five to thirty-four – I mean, we've got to win that game," Talons cornerback Fred Shaw said. "I'm at a loss for words. I just know that once you're on the big stage and you're at home, you've got to find a way to win and we just didn't do it."
The Talons, who entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the National Conference, finished 14-5. They won 11 consecutive games and the Central Division title before losing to Iowa in their regular-season finale last week.
Johnson, who completed his first season as a head coach, said his team's loss came down to lost opportunities.
"We talk about it all the time," he said. "We protect our quarterback and we protect the ball and we'll be OK. We turned it over and it cost us. We blew a protection down here late on fourth down. It cost us.
"Again, it sounds like a cliché but that's exactly what happened. We didn't protect him (Garcia) at the time we had to protect him, and we lose on a fourth down."
The 34 points the Talons scored Friday night matched their season-low, recorded in a 68-34 loss to Arizona on April 22. They started their 11-game winning streak the following week.
Utah, the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, improved to 13-6. The Blaze will play the winner of Saturday night's Arizona-San Jose game in the semifinals next week.
The AFL's championship game, ArenaBowl XXV, is scheduled Aug. 10 in New Orleans.
Talons' defense also made big plays
San Antonio beat the Blaze 54-48 in the teams' season opener March 10 at the Alamodome and 64-61 May 26 in Salt Lake City.
Trounced 69-34 by Eastern Division champion Philadelphia in its regular-season finale, Utah hung tough after falling behind the Talons 20-7 after one quarter.
"Bottom line, we just made too many mistakes," Talons wide receiver Derek Lee said. "The game shouldn't have been that close. No excuses. We made too many mistakes at really bad times and we paid for it. It's tough. It was a great season. It was fun. But it's a big letdown right now."
Utah quarterback Tommy Grady completed 35 of 50 passes for 326 yards and five touchdowns, but was intercepted twice. Linebacker Jamar Ransom and safety Kenneth Fontenette had the interceptions for the Talons, who held the Blaze to their second-lowest scoring total of the season.
Utah wide receivers Aaron Lesue and Tysson Poots each finished with 14 catches for 132 yards. Lesue and Poots had three and two TD receptions, respectively.
The Talons' defense also had its bright moments, stopping the Blaze four times on fourth down, including Fontenette's interception in the San Antonio end zone with 7:31 left. The Talons drove from their 5 to the Utah 3 in seven plays before Montensen broke through the San Antonio line untouched and sacked Garcia, effectively sealing the victory for the Blaze.
"They played a good game," Johnson said of his defense. "But, again, I'm not a defensive coordinator anymore. I'm the head coach and all has to go well. We didn't do the things we needed. If they stopped us four times, we needed to stop them five and we didn't do it."
Johnson opted against kicking field goal
Garcia completed 22 of 37 passes for 285 yards and five TDs, two to Jason Willis, who had 11 catches for 112 yards.
"I made too many mistakes out there," Garcia said. "We hurt ourselves. We overcame a lot of adversity this season. We just couldn't get it done tonight. Defensively, we played well. But, offensively, we didn't get the job done."
Garcia threw an 11-yard strike to Jomo Wilson to put the Talons ahead 6-0 with 7:13 left in the first quarter. But Stefon Demos missed the conversion kick that cost San Antonio dearly in the end.
After the Blaze went up 7-6 on their next possession, Garcia threw TD passes of 43 yards to Lee and 13 yards to Wilson to give the Talons a 20-7 lead after one quarter.
Grady threw two TD strikes in the second quarter, a 2-yarder to Poots and a 10-yarder to Lesue, to put Utah on top 21-20 at halftime. The Blaze never trailed after that.
Ransom's interception set up the Talons' final TD, a 6-yard pass from Garcia to Willis with 13:45 left. Demos kicked conversion, but San Antonio still trailed by one.
Johnson said he decided against kicking a field goal on the Talons' last possession because Demos missed in a similar situation against Arizona two weeks ago.
"We thought about a field goal there, but the last time we got in that situation, we said, 'The next time we're going to go for it,'" Johnson said. "It looked like we had something working there if we don't blow the protection. It looked like we had a chance."