A battle for the lead of the AAF Eastern Conference kicked of Week 5 action, and it ended up going pretty much as expected. The undefeated Orlando Apollos went into Legion Field in Birmingham, took an early lead against the Birmingham Iron, and coasted to a 31-14 victory in a game that never really seemed close, even when the home team managed to get within a touchdown before halftime.
A brisk spring day (game time temperature of 71 degrees) wasn’t enough to bring the fans to the game, with announced attendance of only 13,310 fans. Granted, this number was double the number that showed up last week for the Iron’s first loss of the season, but it was still below the league average.
Early Game, Early Jitters
The Apollos did not waste much time getting out to an early lead, driving the length of the field on the opening possession of the game for a touchdown. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert, after an incompletion on his first pass attempt of the game, connected on his next five, the last of which was a 21-yard touchdown completion to tight end Scott Orndorf, who caught two of the five passes on the drive for a total of 31 yards. A little over two minutes into the game, and the Apollos led 6-0.
Birmingham went three-and-out on their subsequent drive, but were given second life after a muffed punt by D’Ernest Johnson gave them the ball back in Apollos territory. The fresh opportunity was all for naught, however, when the offense again stalled and kicker Nick Novak missed a 35-yard field goal attempt wide right.
Orlando again started driving, and seemed poised to come away with more points before a promising drive ended close to midfield with a punt. On the ensuing Iron drive, however, the Apollos defense scored their third touchdown on the season when Keith Reaser returned a Luis Perez interception 40 yards to pay dirt. After a successful conversion, the Apollos led 14-0, and Perez was done for the day.
New Quarterback Breathes Life
Former University of Washington star Keith Price came on in relief of the ineffective Perez – he finished the game three of seven for eight yards and that pick – and seemed to breath some life into the Iron offense, though it would take some time before that life would translate into points. He completed his first pass for a first down, but took a sack on the next play to end the first quarter. The drive would stall, and the teams then traded punts for a while. The Apollos would actually be next to score, with Elliott Fry converting a 21-yard field goal to put Orlando up 17-0 with three and a half minutes to go in the half.
Price finally got the Iron on the board on the next possession, completing three of four passes for 55 yards, and adding a 12 yard scramble as well. A roughing the passer penalty on the final of those passes moved the Iron within the five yard line, and leading scorer Trent Richardson took the ball in for his eighth touchdown of the season. After a successful conversion attempt, the Apollos lead was trimmed to 17-8 with 90 seconds to go in the half.
With three timeouts at his disposal, Gilbert quickly moved the Apollos down the field, though the Iron defense would not let them score a touchdown. Another short field goal by Fry made the halftime lead 20-8 for the visiting team, but with Birmingham starting the second half with the ball, and Price playing so well, the home fans had to be hopeful for a change of fortune in the second half.
Back Within a Score
After the teams traded punts to open the half, another competent drive by Price resulted in the Iron’s first passing touchdown of the season. Price went three of four on the drive, with two completions of 30 or more yards. The opening play was a deep pass down the right to Wes Saxton, Jr. for 35 yards, and the final play was a 30-yard catch-and-run by running back Brandon Ross on a crossing route for the touchdown.
A failed conversion later, the Iron were within a touchdown of the Apollos at 20-14, but it would be the closest they found themselves for the rest of the game. Near the end of the third quarter, Elliott Fry added his third field goal of the game (all within 30 yards) to extend the lead back to nine at 23-14. Price would need to find some magic for the Iron over the final quarter if his team had any chance of winning the game.
One More Score Is All They Needed
The Iron’s best chance came on their first drive following the field goal, but the drive didn’t last long, and they punted to the Apollos with 12:45 on the clock. Orlando simply needed to add another score, while also running some more time off the clock, to make it even more difficult for the Iron to find a comeback.
Not content to settle for yet another field goal, the Apollos had a good mix of run and pass over the next four minutes on their final scoring drive of the game. Seven plays (four runs and three passes) helped to run just over four minutes off the clock. But perhaps more importantly, the Apollos scored a touchdown – a 12-yard pass to Charles Johnson – and converted for two-points, moving their lead to what would prove to be the final 31-14 margin. Needing three scores, the Iron sputtered on two subsequent drives, failing to convert on a fourth down attempt on both drives.
Garrett Gilbert made a solid early case for Offensive Player of the Week with a very efficient day. He completed 23 of 35 passes for 286 yards and those two touchdowns, and was not sacked or intercepted during the game. He has opened the season with 148 passing attempts and has yet to be intercepted, and is tied with Arizona Hotshots quarterback John Wolford with eight touchdown passes on the season.
Not to be outdone, his Iron counterpart Keith Price did well in his first action of the season, and it will be interesting to see if Coach Tim Lewis stays with him in their game next week. Price went 18 of 29 for 234 yards and a touchdown, though he was sacked five times (but only for 15 yards lost).
Next Week’s Games
The newly 5-0 Apollos will head home to Orlando next week for a Saturday night game against the Arizona Hotshots (2-2) in what could be a matchup of conference leaders, or a potential preview of the AAF Championship game (depending on how well the Hotshots fare in their game tomorrow night. The Iron (3-2) will be in San Diego for a Sunday night game against the San Diego Fleet (2-2), who play later tonight to see if they will be sharing that Western Conference lead.