Written by Erik Slaby
Orlando, FL – On a warm evening here at Spectrum Stadium, in front of an announced crowd of 20,394 people, the Orlando Apollos defeated the Memphis Express by a score of 21-17. With this win, the Apollos are now 3-0 and are the only undefeated team in the Alliance of American Football. Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert spoke after the game about the win.
“Well, it is still early, but I think our team has done an excellent job every single week,” said Gilbert. “I’m sure later tonight we will look back at the film and find a ton of missed opportunities, but in the end we found a way to win and that’s all that matters.”
In the first half, it was a bit of a sloppy game by both teams and while it became less sloppy in the second half, those moments were still there. Early on, it looked like the Apollos would dominate the game as they were quickly able take a 6-0 lead on their first possession after a four play, 60-yard drive that was capped off by a four-yard touchdown run by running back D’Ernest Johnson. This was Johnson’s first start as he replaced former starting running back Akeem Hunt in the lineup, due to his good performance the past two weeks.
Orlando’s good fortune continued on Memphis’s first possession when starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg underthrew a pass and was intercepted by Orlando defensive back Keith Reaser. The Apollos were able to convert this turnover into points after a 31-yard field goal from kicker Elliott Fry. By the end of the first half Orlando led 9-0 and it looked like they may be able to run away with an easy victory. However, there were some troubling signs as Orlando’s next five possessions ended with punts, a turnover on downs and the end of the half.
Memphis came out in the second half with the ball and head coach Mike Singletary made a quarterback change, benching Hackenberg after he threw two interceptions in the first half and replaced him with backup Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger immediately rewarded his coach’s faith in him, leading the Express on a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the second half. The drive was highlighted by a beautiful 30-yard touchdown pass from Mettenberger to wide receiver Devin Lucien. This cut the Orlando lead to 9-6, after a failed two-point conversion attempt. Mettenberger spoke after the game about getting a chance to show what he can do.
“It was good,” said Mettenberger. “I’ve been preparing for it, hoping for it. Fortunately, today I got my opportunity, did some good things. Would’ve liked to have another possession there at the end. Think we could’ve won it. I’m just proud of the offense. We had a lot of guys go down today, offensive line-wise. For me to go in with our last five linemen and not get sacked, that’s huge. So, there’s a lot of good things going for sure.”
With Memphis showing signs of life, it was critical for Orlando to come up with points on their next drive and increase their lead. Especially after their dismal second quarter performance. On that next drive, Orlando was able to go on a six-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with an insane 37-yard touchdown pass on 4th down & 7, from Gilbert to wide receiver Rannell Hall. Gilbert was able to roll to his right and with a Memphis defender almost hanging off of him, throw the ball into the end zone with Hall making a great play to catch the ball. This score gave Orlando a 15-6 lead. Hall spoke after the game about this touchdown play.
“It was a designated play, just something we’ve been working on all week in practice,” said Hall. “It actually turned into a scramble drill and I saw a big zone up field and my player instincts just kicked in. That was the area I needed to be. Garrett (Gilbert) made the throw. Touchdown.”
After this score, Memphis kicker Josh Jasper drilled a 27-yard field goal to come within six points. Orlando responded with another touchdown off of an electric 21-yard run by Gilbert on a quarterback keeper, as he managed to avoid multiple defenders to get into the end zone. This gave the Apollos a 21-9 lead and although the Express were able to score again on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Mettenberger to wide receiver Gerrad Sheppard to cut the lead to 21-17. However, it was too little too late as Orlando was run out the last five minutes of the game with a powerful, grinding rushing attack.
Gilbert led Orlando offensively, completing 14-28 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown. He also had seven carries for 43 yards and one touchdown. Johnson led the team in rushing with 13 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. Backup running back De’Veon Smith also was a key contributor with eight carries for 52 yards. Mettenberger was a bright spot for Memphis as he was effective and moved the ball well. He completed 9-12 passes for 120 yards and two touchdown passes.
Though Orlando is currently the only 3-0 in the league, leading many to believe that they are the best team, head coach Steve Spurrier pushed back against that narrative after the game.
“We’re not out-coaching anybody, that’s for sure,” said Spurrier grimly. “I think we have a good team if we play within the rules, play smart, don’t give up 50-yard touchdowns and run the ball a little bit better. Don’t go for 4th -and-1 when you can’t make one. We needed a slap in the face a little bit after beating San Antonio. USA Today said we’re the top team in the Alliance, but we’re not the top team right now. I don’t think we’re the best team by any means right now.”
Next week, Orlando will go on the road to face off against the Salt Lake Stallions, who are coming off of a 23-15 win over the Arizona Hotshots. This game will take place at 4PM EST at Rice-Eccles Stadium.