In the Memphis express first three losses, there has been a consistent display of inconsistency along with a little bad luck. Despite the emergence of Zach Mettenberger and a spark plug in former Tulane RB Sherman Badie, the Express lost their third game in as many tries to a stymied but effective Orlando Apollos offense in Saturday night’s 21-17 loss.
Despite the Apollos cutting right down the field on their first possession and scoring a TD, the defense shut down a normally potent Orlando offense for much of the game. After Hackenberg once again showed an interception-laden, opportunity-wasting, mediocre performance that left the Express without points at halftime, Zach Mettenberger came in to start the second half with a 30 yard TD pass to Devin Lucien and cut the Appolo lead to 9-6.
While things were looking up on offense the defense failed on a big drive. After a 28 yard running play by De’Veon Smith which got Orlando to the Memphis’ 39 on the ensuing drive, the Express stuffed the Apollos and forced a 4th and 8 from the 37. Orlando showed a lot of contempt for the Express offense by going for it, and on the biggest play of the game, a scrambling Gilbert found WR Rannell Hall for a 37-yard touchdown to bring the Apollos back up by two scores.
Later, once Josh Jasper’s 27 yard FG made it 15-9 early in the fourth quarter after another decent Mettenberger-led drive, Greg Gilbert’s short pass up the middle looked like an interception. The pass was deflected into and out of the arms of both Express DBs Channing Stribling and Arnold Tarpley and into the arms of Apollo TE Matt Weiser for an 8 yard gain.
That would-be interception deep in Apollo territory would have certainly changed the game tremendously. Instead, the Orlando running attack mounted a drive that culminated in a 21 yard Gilbert scrambling TD run where Express LB Benetton Fonua somehow bear-hugged Gilbert at the 10 and let him go.
In a season where the Express offense has struggled and relied on the defense to keep them in games, Mettenberger defied expectations once again and led the Express down the field, aided by Sherman Badie’s explosiveness. With 5:40 left in the game, Mettenberger hit WR Gerrard Sheppard for a 40 yard TD and then completed the Express’ first two-point conversion on a misdirection rollout to Anthony Manzo-Lewis which then made it 21-17 once more giving the Express a chance.
But with a full five minutes left, and an offense now humming along, the Express defense failed in a way it hasn’t all season, allowing a sustained, purposeful Orlando running drive to salt away the remaining time by driving the length of the field.
The Express defense was good for most of the game. And although we didn’t get a lights out performance from the unit, it did show once again that it is very strong and capable of shutting down the best of AAF’s offenses with Davis Tull being the clear defensive leader. Tull had a sack and led the team in tackles.
Overshadowing the defense by a long shot was the Zach Mettenberger-led offense that showed both consistency and an ability to both complete drives and throw the deep ball. Mettenberger’s second-half performance was light years above anything that we had seen on that side of the ball this season and makes me wonder, what if? What if Mettenberger had come in the first half or any of the previous two games?
The arrival of Sherman Badie is also a huge boon for the Express. He hit the holes with vigor in a way that Zac Stacy doesn’t and showed that he can help sustain a drive on the ground.
The penalty situation was once again a really bad aspect of this week’s performance. Most of the penalties were on the offense with several false starts spread out amongst the offensive line.
Although we can’t completely fault the defense for the loss, it was not a pretty thing to see them crumble when they absolutely needed a stop. They have shown the ability to stuff fourth and one, and even take over and keep the Express in games on their own. It was sad watching them get run over when it really counted.
Mettenberger vs. Hackenberg
Mettenberger’s performance showed us many things. While the offensive line hasn’t been great and Hackenberg has been sacked often, Mettenberger’s competence just made the line seem better. He is more experienced, more accurate, has better instincts, and quickly develops plays. Some of the screen plays were good indicators of the difference. While Hackenberg was slow to develop them Mettenberger got the ball out quickly, allowing ball carriers more time to make a move.
The Express are back home next weekend hosting Mike Martz’s San Diego Fleet.