It’s convenient for sports writers to talk about a football game as if it was decided by one play or series. They’ll give it a name, like “the Drive,” “the Holy Roller,” or “the Miracle in Miami.”
The truth is , however, that no football game is decided by one play or one drive.
“It always looks like that, but it’s never quite true,” Commanders head coach Mike Riley said after the game.
The contest Sunday, between the San Antonio Commanders and Orlando Apollos, was no exception. The game featured two defensive scores, deep passes into tight windows, acrobatic catches and two teams who came into the week looking for offensive balance. The result was a close, tense, high-scoring game that came down to the final minutes. One could point to a fourth-down play in the closing minutes of the game as the decisive blow. Or you could look at a third-down rushing play in the fourth quarter as the game-winner. Both teams had multiple opportunities to win the game, but only the Apollos left undefeated.
The story of the first quarter was of the Commanders’ dominance. San Antonio won the toss and deferred to the second half. Orlando started with the ball, but couldn’t do much with it.
After three plays, Ben Turk punted the ball to Greg Ward Jr. The Commanders quickly marched 59 yards down the field for a Kenneth Farrow II rushing touchdown in 10 plays. After another quick three-and-out by the Apollos, San Antonio was driving again. This time, it took quarterback Logan Woodside 14 plays, plus three defensive penalties, to go 72 yards for the touchdown. This time the score came via a one yard pass to tight-end Evan Rodriguez.
De’Marcus Ayers, starting at wide receiver in place of John Diarse, came down with an acrobatic one-handed 29 yard catch on the drive. Once again, the Commanders couldn’t capitalize on the two-point conversion. In the first quarter, San Antonio possessed the ball for over 13 minutes and got out to a 12-0 lead. Woodside completed seven of 10 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. Apollos’ QB Garrett Gilbert went one for five with four passing yards. Orlando possessed the ball for only 1:59 of the 15 minute period.
Orlando wouldn’t stay down long, however.
In the 2nd quarter, the Apollos’ offense exploded for 212 yards and 17 points. Outside of a De’Veon Smith rushing touchdown, the Apollos continued to be ineffective running the football. It didn’t seem to matter, though, as Gilbert completed passes down the field at will. He completed passes of 54, 57, 45 and 21 yards in the quarter.
Charles Johnson caught four passes for 133 yards and a touchdown, and finished the day with an impressive seven catches for 192 yards. “We had a guy over the top, and [Gilbert] threw it right in the hole and [Johnson] went up and made a great play,” Riley said.
San Antonio also had a pair of successful drives, but were unable to convert them into touchdowns. Marquise Williams surprised many when he came in and played quarterback in relief of Logan Woodside for a drive. Williams did not have success passing the football, –two completions on four attempts for three yards– but made up for it with his legs. Williams converted two third-downs on his feet to keep the drive alive, and totalled 3 rush attempts for 32 yards, which resulted in a 50 yard field goal from Nick Rose. After the game, Woodside said he supported Williams getting playing time, and that he had earned it.
“I do think Logan is our starter, and I like him. But, I think Marquise can, as you saw, give us a good change of pace,” Riley said of the quarterback change.
After Orlando took their first lead of the game on the ensuing touchdown drive, San Antonio got the ball back for the last possession of the half.
On the first play of the drive, Orlando linebacker Ryan Davis Sr suffered a neck injury that resulted in him being carted off the field. “His condition is not as bad as it appeared at times,” Orlando head coach Steve Spurrier said after the game.
San Antonio drove down the field where Rose’s 38 yard field goal put San Antonio up 18-17 to end the first half.
The Commanders opened the 2nd half by marching 56 yards down field in 11 plays and kicking a 37-yard field goal, extending their lead to 21-17. On the ensuing Orlando possession, a panicked Gilbert fumbled the ball away. Defensive tackle Joey Mbu recovered the ball and returned it eight yards for a touchdown. Woodside converted two points on a pass to Rodriguez.
Orlando immediately got the ball back and drove to the San Antonio 6 yard line, where they were held to an Elliott Fry field goal. The Commanders would punt on their last possession of the quarter. San Antonio lead 29-20.
The Apollos began the quarter with a Fry field goal to bring the score to 29-23. The Commanders held onto the ball for five plays before punting for the second consecutive drive. Upon getting the ball back, Orlando took only six plays to go 79 yards capped off with a 23 yard touchdown pass from Gilbert to wide receiver Jalin Marshall. The game remained tied at 29-29 when Orlando failed to convert on the two-point attempt.
Two plays later, Woodside made a game-changing mistake, throwing left to Mekale McKay when it was picked off and returned to the house by Orlando cornerback Keith Reaser. A successful two-point conversion to receiver Rannell Hall put the Apollos up eight with 7:02 remaining in the game.
However, it appeared the game was not yet over. Woodside started the next drive with a 29-yard pass to Mekay and a 26-yard bomb to Alonzo Moore. Just like that, San Antonio was threatening. In order to win, San Antonio would need to score and get a defensive stop.
Eventually, the Commanders had a third down at Orlando’s four-yard-line with 3:09 left in the game. When Woodside’s pass fell incomplete, Riley had a decision to make. On fourth down and with three timeouts remaining, Riley considered taking a field goal and trying to get a defensive stop, or an onside conversion in an attempt to score the go-ahead touchdown. “But you know, I didn’t want to regret that either, and not ever have the ball back,” Riley said. Instead, a Woodside incompletion gave the ball back to Orlando.
“Fourth and three. Yeah, you got to go for it, probably,” Spurrier said of the controversial play.
San Antonio still had an opportunity to tie, if they stopped Orlando and scored a touchdown with a two-point conversio.
To that point in the game, Orlando had rushed 10 times for a total of 12 yards. But, they were able to run it when they needed to. The next 6 plays were all rushes and went for a total of 57 yards. That set up Orlando to kneel out the clock for a 37-29 road victory.
Game MVP: QB Garrett Gilbert
Gilbert took a few drives to get into a rhythm. But, from the beginning of the second quarter until the end of the game, Gilbert was unstoppable. From that point, he completed 18 of 23 passes for 389 yards and two touchdowns. Unable to run the ball for most of the game, the Apollos’ victory relied mostly on Gilbert completing tight window throws down the field while under pressure. “Garrett had an excellent game,” Spurrier said, “He wasn’t perfect today, but he was close.” Coming into the week, Gilbert already looked like the best quarterback in the AAF. Now, he’s the too-early pick for league MVP.
All Stats courtesy of AAF Game Statistics Information System