SAN JOSE -- SaberCats coach Darren Arbet has called it a season of adversity for his Arena Football League team, which has placed nearly a dozen players on injured reserve and relied on a rookie quarterback after its starter was lost to injury.
Adversity has rarely looked so good.
With five touchdown passes from rookie Nathan Stanley and the defense applying heat in the trenches and the secondary, the SaberCats rolled to a 55-28 victory over the Spokane Shock in a playoff opener Saturday night at SAP Center.
San Jose moves on to play next weekend against top-seeded Arizona or fourth-seeded Portland.
The SaberCats, seeded second, built a four-touchdown halftime lead Saturday as Ken Fontenette had two of the team's three interceptions, Jason Stewart had 3½ sacks and Stanley tossed scoring strikes to three receivers, including two to fellow rookie Dominique Curry.
"We played well on both sides of the ball," Stanley said. "Our defense did great, took a lot of pressure off of our offense, and our offense played well. Receivers got open, and our O-line did a phenomenal job."
The SaberCats (14-5) led 31-0 by the time Spokane scored its first points, a 5-yard touchdown pass from Erik Meyer to Mike Washington with 7:07 left in the third quarter.
San Jose answered that score with Stanley's fifth touchdown pass, all but clinching a trip to next weekend's conference final.
"He's been playing great," Arbet said of his quarterback. "He's focused. The thing I like about him is it means something to him, and the guys really believe in him. They're really fighting for him."
Russ Michna, who has had an injury-plagued season, was activated Saturday, but Arbet stuck with the rookie.
"Russ practiced two days this week," said Arbet, who also co-owns the team.
"Nate's been playing. He's hot. We've been winning. There are some things Russ still needs to get stronger at and work on. He knows that. When he's ready to go, it's a great choice to have."
As usual, there were early fireworks on the field Saturday.
After a high-voltage pyrotechnic pregame show, Spokane (11-8) had a great shot to take a quick lead when Meyer lofted a 33-yard pass to Washington, who was smashed into the padded sideline wall at the 1.
But three plays later, David Hyland swiped a pass in the end zone and returned the interception along the sideline to midfield.
Stanley cashed in the turnover with a 13-yard pass to Curry as the SaberCats grabbed a 7-0 lead.
Spokane threatened again on its next series, with another long pass from Meyer to Washington helping the Shock reach the San Jose 3.
But penalties and the SaberCats' defense stymied the opportunity.
Stanley made it 14-0 when he fired a 29-yard strike to streaking receiver Ben Nelson for a touchdown.
Fontenette followed another San Jose sack with an interception, completing a dominant opening quarter by the home team. Fontenette finished with 10 tackles.
"It was the fastest we've started all season," he said. "But I still think our best football has yet to come. We wanted to be on a steady incline going into the playoffs, and that's what we're doing."
Follow Darren Sabedra on Twitter at twitter.com/DarrenSabedra.
SaberCats vs. Arizona or Portland, TBA