One team was leading their conference after a dominant performance to close out last week. The other was winless on the season and starting a new quarterback after a former top NFL pick proved ineffective. On paper, the game seemed pretty one-sided, with the host team likely entering next week’s game still looking for their first win on the season. But they don’t play games on paper, even in the AAF.
Early on, it seemed that the Fleet would run away with the game, but the Express were resilient and kept it close. In the end, however, the Express defense came up with a huge stop and forced a turnover, and the Express won their first game of the season 26-23 in front of 13,621 fans at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Off to a Bad Start
The Express won the pre-game coin toss, and elected to start the game off with the ball. Unfortunately, the offense went backwards, thanks to a false start penalty and a sack, leading to a punt for the home team. The punt from Ryan Winslow wasn’t the best, traveling 36 yards to Ron Brooks, who caught it on a run and did not stop, returning the punt 57 yards to the house for the first punt return touchdown in league history. Without an offensive play, the Fleet led 6-0.
Memphis failed to convert on a fourth down on the subsequent drive, giving the Fleet the ball near midfield. The Fleet’s drive also stalled out, leading Donny Hageman to attempt, and miss, a 52-yard field goal. With a short field of their own, the Express were able to get a 46-yard field goal from new kicker Austin MacGinnis, cutting the lead in half to 6-3.
The Fleet offense then converted what would be their longest offensive play of the game on first down, with Philip Nelson finding Dontez Ford across the middle for a 54-yard catch-and-run, moving the Fleet into the red zone for the first time. Three runs and a penalty moved the ball to the six-yard line, and on third down, Nelson again connected with Ford, this time for a six-yard touchdown. After a Terrell Watson run for two points, the Fleet led 14-3 with just over a minute left in the first quarter.
Second Verse, Same as the First
The subsequent Memphis drive ended the first quarter, and the second quarter started with a Memphis punt. This one was fortunately not returned for a touchdown, and on the Fleet drive, the Memphis defense picked up their first turnover of the game on a fumbled snap. With another short field, the Express again drove for another field goal, with MacGinnis converting from 40 yards out.
On the next Fleet drive, Nelson was in control of the drive, completing 5-of-7 passes for 34 yards, as well as a 10 yard scramble for first down. However, he was injured on the last of his completions, and Alex Ross replaced him at quarterback. After an incompletion on his first attempt, Ross connected with Marcus Baugh deep down the right side for a 30-yard touchdown, extending the Fleet lead to 20-6.
The Comeback Begins
Memphis had the ball two more times in the first half and capitalized both time. Following the Fleet touchdown, they drove the field for another MacGinnis field goal, getting back within two scores. The defense then came through on the next Fleet drive, with Drew Jackson intercepting an Alex Ross pass at the 38-yard line with 1:35 left in the half. Zach Mettenberger moved the Express down the field – aided by a 28 yard catch-and-run reception by Alton Howard – and Mettenberger took the ball in from the one yard line to close the gap yet again. After a failed conversion, the Fleet led 20-15 at the half and would start the second half with the ball.
The second quarter fireworks were not indicative of what to expect in the third quarter, as the teams simply exchanged punts for four drives for the quarter. The Fleet were driving as the quarter ended, and started the fourth quarter with a 46-yard field goal by Donny Hageman to push their lead back to eight points. Those would prove to be their final points of the game.
Three more punts (two Express and one Fleet) followed the field goal, and the Express were starting to run out of time. Once again, however, their defense came through, sacking Ross and forcing a fumble, which was recovered on the San Diego 21-yard line. The Express wasted no time with the short field, using four plays to reach the end zone, the final six on a touchdown pass from Mettenberger to Terrence Magee. After Mettenberger again ran it in for the conversion, the game was tied at 23-23 with six minutes remaining.
After San Diego failed to convert a fake punt attempt, Memphis again took advantage of a short field, with MacGinnis scoring his fourth field goal of the game to stake the Express to their first lead of the game at 26-23. San Diego would get the ball back with 2:42 remaining, needing a field goal to force the first overtime game in league history.
It wasn’t to be, however, with another San Diego drive ending after yet another fumble by Ross after a sack. Mettenberger knelt three times and the Express won their first game of the season.
The player of the game – and early favorite for Defensive Player of the Week – was defensive end Corey Vereen. He only had two tackles, but they were big ones: the two sacks on Alex Ross that resulted in fumbles recovered by the Express. Without his contributions on defense, the Express would likely be looking at a 0-4 record.
Zach Metternberger also rewarded the faith of Express coach Mike Singletary, throwing for 174 yards and one touchdown, adding a rushing touchdown (and two-point conversion), and not turning the ball over. After his perfect second half in relief of Christian Hackenberg last week, one wonders that had Singletary made the change sooner would the Express be looking at two wins instead of just one, but there is still plenty of time for the Express to recover from that 0-3 start.
The Express will look to make it two in a row on the road against the Atlanta Legends (0-3), who will be going for their first win of the season later tonight. Meanwhile, the Fleet will return to San Diego to host the Salt Lake Stallions (1-3) in their first matchup of the season.