After the Express started the game on a nightmare opening possession that included a false start and a fumble and ended on Ron Brooks’ 57 yard Fleet playground punt return, a little hope came as the Express got a couple of good runs from Zac Stacy and a rare first down. But the Fleet stuffed Zac Stacy on 4th and 1 at midfield, the first of two stuffs on 4th and 1 for the Fleet. And that has happened a lot of times to the offense this season.
It seemed like déjà vu.
Donny Hageman’s missed 52 yard field goal with 7:16 left in the first quarter set up the Express offense at midfield. The Express got a field goal.
Davis Tull’s recovery of a fumbled snap with 13:30 left in the second quarter set up the Express on the Fleet 46. The Express got a field goal.
The defense did everything but kick the field goals.
San Diego Head Coach Mike Martz, who had seemed pretty methodical and a great schemer in the first three weeks insisted upon keeping the Express in the game. And he did it by making curious choices.
The difference: Mike Martz blows it before halftime
With only 1:48 left in the first half, the Fleet held a 20-9 lead and had the ball on their own 25. Alex Ross inexplicably threw a dangerous pass which was tipped by defensive juggernaut Drew Jackson and almost intercepted by Jeremy Cutrer. Martz kept insisting on passing in this situation and he should have known better. Two passes later Alex Ross’ pass to Brian Brown was intercepted by Drew Jackson who surprised Ross by dropping back into coverage and set up the Express offense on the 38. Six plays later it was 20-15 as Mettenberger ran a sneak, effectively giving the Express the momentum.
The remainder of the way, the San Diego could only manage a Donny Hageman field goal.
Martz sets up the Express defense and Corey Vereen goes wild
The Express offense fizzled over and over and with eight minutes left the Fleet got the ball back and Martz’s questionable choices continued in clutch situations. After Alex Ross tried to throw another interception to Drew Jackson, Corey Vereen grabbed Ross’s arm on the next play just before it came forward to force another Fleet fumble and the Express had the ball at the San Diego 21 yard line. This produced Mettenberger’s six-yard, lone TD pass of the night to Terrence Magee and after a Mettenberger sneak on the conversion, the Express had done the unthinkable and tied the game at 23.
In a fourth quarter, tie game with less than 5 minutes to go that was in no way a desperate situation, Mike Martz made his worst choice of the night by deciding to run a fake punt at his own 32 that resulted in a loss of four yards. Up to that point the Express had not had one long, sustained scoring drive from far inside their own territory. If this was the NFL he would have fans calling for his firing. The AAF has seen some surprising moves with teams routinely going for it on 4th in their own territory and other gambles that would not be taken if more money was on the line. But this one was completely risk and no reward.
Finishing it out
The Express gained only one yard after two straight losses on the ensuing drive, but once new kicker Austin MacGinnis had kicked through the winning field goal most of the fans were oblivious to what they had seen on offense all night. It was a win.
The Fleet conceptually had one more chance with only 1:50 left. On third and seven at the Fleet 39 Corey Vereen got to Ross, stripped him and Greg Gilmore jumped on the fumble. By then it was complete defensive domination and the Express won their first game ever because of their entertaining defense and the four turnovers they made that brought points.
Offense struggles for the Express again and again
Zach Mettenberger had an efficient day going 18 of 25 but only for 174 yards and a touchdown. He did not look incredible and lots of his throws, especially the long balls were off but his demeanor was a positive uplifting one. Most importantly he didn’t commit a single turnover though he did fumble. But there were no extended drives to remember.
The running game was completely locked up because of the 1980’s era play calling. Both Stacy and Badie are efficient, tough backs but they can’t get out of the backfield mostly because of the poor play calling. 225 yards of offense will not cut it.
On the positive side Reese Horn showed a lot of desire with a 39 yard reception that set up a field goal and another 12 yard catch for a first down that he completely went and got on his own.
After halftime even though the momentum seemed to be with the Express, every drive in the third quarter came up empty.
The two TD drives for the Express began at the 21 and the 31 of San Diego off of defensive turnovers.
Drew Jackson is incredible
Drew Jackson and Corey Vereen both deserve player of the game status, Vereen especially for forcing fumbles that led to game winning scores and two sacks. But Drew Jackson is in a completely different stratosphere. Against the Fleet, Jackson had 13 tackles, (the closest Express player had five) an interception that led to the momentum changing Express score before half, and a sack. You could routinely see him in the backfield running down a ball carrier or dropping back in pass coverage where he had a legitimate shot at three interceptions. His positioning and drive is incredible. Jackson had only 3 tackles in each of his first two games but has 17 in his last two.
The entire defensive line deserves kudos as well for collapsing on both Philip Nelson and Alex Ross. Davis Tull showed his excellent defensive play once again with 4 tackles and 1 fumble recovery. Jeremy Cutrer and Arnold Tarpley III are still looking tough in the secondary.
A subtle example of how good the Express defense is, even when they are not getting a turnover was emphasized early in the third quarter. The Fleet started a drive early from their own one yard line that took over seven minutes off the clock and generated sixty yards of offense. Despite this the defense did not allow a point forcing a punt with 4:13 left in the third.
Welcome Austin MacGinnis
In freezing weather Austin MacGinnis was 4 for 4, kicking field goals of 46, 40, 35, and the game winner from 45 accounting for 12 of the Express’ 26 points.
Sunday March 10th, the Express are on the road facing the Atlanta Legends at Georgia State Stadium.