The Arizona Hotshots hit the road this week, traveling to Tennessee to face off against the Memphis Express. The Hotshots were coming off of a 38-22 victory over the Salt Lake Stallions, led by quarterback John Wolford, the inaugural AAF Offensive Player of the Week. The Express, on the other hand, were the only team to not score during the opening weekend, falling 26-0 to the Birmingham Iron.
I was expecting the Hotshots to dominate in this one given the teams’ performance last week, but the Express looked like the better team… for the first half. While the Hotshots didn’t quite look like the team from week one, they still defeated the Express 20-18, moving them to 2-0 on the season, while the Express fell to 0-2.
Tail of Two Halves
If the game was only 30 minutes long, the Express would have secured their first victory of the season. After a Hotshots fumble on their second drive of the game, the Express had a short field, taking possession on the Arizona 26 yard line. After a four-yard run by Zac Stacy on first down, the Express lost five yards on a false start penalty. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg failed to gain the 11 yards needed to continue the drive on the following two plays, leading to a 38-yard field goal by Josh Jasper, the first points in team history.
On the ensuing drive, the Express forced a turnover, with Channing Stribling intercepting Wolford at the Arizona 48 yard line, Wolford’s first interception of the season (a rarity among AAF quarterbacks). The subsequent 31-yard return again set the Express up deep in Hotshots territory, and this time they were able to find the end zone with Stacy ending the drive with a nine-yard touchdown run, his first on the season (obviously). After failing on the two-point conversion, the Express led 9-0 with 5:37 left in the first quarter.
Another Wolford interception was responsible for the Express’ next points as well, as the Hotshots quarterback was picked off by Jeremy Cutrer at the Arizona 25 yard line. Another short field for the Express yielded another John Jasper field goal, this time from 35 yards out, giving the Express a 12-0 lead they would take into the locker room.
Hotshots Chip Away
Memphis started with the ball in the second half and were unable to capitalize on any momentum that they may have had from the first half. The teams exchanged possessions for the first half of the third quarter before the Hotshots unleashed their first sustained drive of the game.
After receiving an Express punt at their 20, they drove 80 yards in just under four minutes, with Wolford overcoming his first half struggles. Running back Tim Cook started the drive off, running twice for 34 yards to get the Hotshots to the Express side of the field. A short pass and a Wolford scramble gave the Hotshots another first down. Three more Cook runs (and a Memphis penalty for too many men on the field), gave the Hotshots a first down with the ball on the 25 yard line. Three passes later, and the Hotshots were in the end zone, with the final play on the drive a 16-yard touchdown reception for Rashad Ross, his league-leading third of the season. After failing the conversion, the Hotshots trailed 12-6.
Fourth Quarter Fireworks
Early in the fourth quarter, the Express added a touchdown on a short Hackenberg run, a drive that began with a 49-yard run by Zac Stacy. However, after missing the conversion yet again, the Express led 18-6 and would not score the remainder of the way.
After starting the subsequent drive on their own 13 yard line (there was an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Hackenberg touchdown), the Hotshots again found the rhythm to their offense, moving the ball with Tim Cook runs and seemingly effortless passing from Wolford. Justin Stockton capped it all off, nearly matching the long run from Memphis’ Zac Stacy on the prior drive, scoring on a 45 yard run. This time, the Hotshots converted the 2-point try, with Wolford rushing it in and pulling Arizona back within a touchdown at 18-14.
After another three-and-out for Memphis, the Hotshots didn’t waste anytime taking the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. After a three-yard rush by Stockton on first down, Wolford found Josh Huff for a 64-yard completion down to the Memphis eight yard line. Three plays later, Wolford found Cook for a four-yard touchdown to put the Hotshots ahead for good and completing the largest comeback in the young league’s history (12 points). The touchdown was Wolford’s sixth through two games.
Memphis would get the ball twice more, needing only a field goal to win the game. The first drive immediately following the touchdown, they managed to reach the Arizona side of the field before failing to convert on a shirt 4th down run, a spot that was upheld on replay. Then, after forcing Arizona to a three-and-out, they failed on a desperation 4th-and-19 play from their own 17, allowing Wolford to come in a wrap up the game with a kneel down.
Zac Stacy shined for the Express, becoming the first running back in league history to rush for over 100 yards in a game (101 yards), albeit he was aided by that 49-yard run. He also scored the first touchdown in Express history.
For the Hotshot, John Wolford showed some of the same ability that led to his award last week, though it took him until the second half to truly find his groove. Two first-half interceptions nearly proved costly, but he was otherwise solid, going 14-for-22 for 194 yards and those two touchdowns. He also contributed 25 yards on the ground, combining with his three running backs – Tim Cook, Josh Stockton, and Jhurrell Pressley – to rush for over 200 yards as a team.
The Hotshots (2-0) will travel north to face the Salt Lake Stallions (0-2), their opponent from Week 1, next Saturday in the early game. Meanwhile, the Express (0-2) will look for their first win of the season Saturday night against an Orlando Apollos (1-0) team that scored 40 points during a Week 1 destruction of the Atlanta Legends.