SAN ANTONIO — To say Utah struggled on the road last season would be a drastic understatement. Although the Blaze posted the best record in franchise history (9-9), they crutched to an agonizing 2-7 record away from EnergySolutions Arena.
While traveling the Blaze were tepid, pun intended. In the seven losses on the road, they averaged 50.2 points per game, 14 points below their season average at home.
That all could change this season.
With 17 returning players, Utah has built cohesion amongst the team and feel that success in opposing stadiums is on the horizon.
The Blaze will look to right the ship and put an end to their road woes in the 2012 season opener against San Antonio at 2 p.m. in the Alamodome on Saturday.
"It's going to be a ruckus environment down here. The fans are really looking to come out and give us a hard time," said Utah coach Ron James. "Just keeping our team focused is the main thing for this opening game.
"Without a preseason schedule it's difficult to come in here and know exactly what to expect out of our team, (but) we feel pretty strong about the group we've got coming in here."
The Talons, entering their first year in the AFL, aren't the typical pushover expansion team.
In the offseason, San Antonio surprisingly acquired quarterback Aaron Garcia fresh off his finest professional season with career highs behind center — passing for 4,933 yards and 116 TDs.
The 17-year veteran holds league records for passing yards (50,019) and touchdowns (1,078). Last season, he was named First Team All-Arena and the Offensive Player of the Year subsequent to winning his first championship with the Jacksonville Sharks.
"It's just making sure that we can limit Aaron's throws and not let him get into a rhythm," James said when asked what was needed to disrupt Garcia. "If we take care of that defensively then I think our offense is prolific enough to be able to go toe-to-toe with them."
Garcia is joined by former Orlando receiver Robert Quiroga. With the Predators in 2011, he hauled in a team-high 126 receptions for 1,533 yards and 26 scores.
"It's not just Quiroga," explained James. "They've got Brent Holmes, a veteran receiver, and they've got Jomo Wilson who was with Garcia last year in the championship run. So, they've got creative, veteran wide receivers and they've got a good battery offensively."
If Utah is unable to get stops, the game likely will evolve into the Shootout at the River Walk. Last season, under the guidance of Assistant Coach of the Year Matthew Sauk, the Blaze topped the AFL in passing yards per game (301 ypg) and ranked third in total offense (318 ypg), passing efficiency (117) and scoring offense (60 ppg).
"I feel very confident in the offense," James said. "Coach Sauk has a great game-plan for this week and with (quarterback) Tommy Grady we've always got an opportunity to win. That combination speaks calmly about our ability to come in here and win on the road. It's going to come down to final possessions and who handles the ball and the clock the best."
Blaze (0-0) at Talons (0-0)Comment on this story
Saturday March 10th, 2 p.m.
Alamodome, San Antonio
Radio: 97.5 FM, 1280 AM