The last time the Orlando Apollos played at Spectrum Stadium, they left with somewhat of a sour taste in their collective craw.
Sure, the Apollos dispatched Memphis three weeks ago, but there were nervous moments in the 21-17 final as the offense went dormant for the better part of 2½ quarters and the Express launched a feverish comeback after Zach Mettenberger was inserted at quarterback.
Though they’ve followed with perhaps their two finest outings to reach the season’s midway point at 5-0, the Apollos haven’t exactly let that one go.
“We didn’t play our best that night against Memphis,” coach Steve Spurrier recalled. “We did some good stuff, but we did not have our best game our last time there. We’re definitely going to try to play a lot better.”
Should the Apollos need any more illustration of how quickly things can turn, they need only look at Saturday night’s opposing sideline. The Arizona Hotshots (2-3) were considered the class of the West after a pair of opening wins but now find themselves looking upward when it comes to playoff positioning.
First snap is set for 8 p.m., and the game will air on NFL Network.
“It’ll be nice to be back in front of the home crowd,” quarterback Garrett Gilbert said. “We’ll certainly enjoy it, but we’ve still got to take care of business.”
The contest marks the first time the Apollos have spent time in the City Beautiful since the Memphis game. They’ve bunkered nearly three weeks in Jacksonville, shuttling across the state line each day to practice in Georgia as a requirement for coverage under that state’s workers’ compensation plan.
Florida law exempts pro athletes from being covered under its workers’ comp program, and the Alliance of American Football is too new to secure its own league-wide carrier. This is the Apollos’ only home game in the five-week stretch they’ve carved out to be away.
Thus far, the move has done little to slow the Apollos. Wins at Salt Lake and Birmingham not only got them to the halfway point unblemished, but they’re the only AAF squad without at least two losses.
The Apollos lead the league in almost every key offensive category, averaging 402.0 yards and 29.8 points per game. Gilbert has yet to throw an interception while leading the AAF with 1,357 yards passing.
Orlando also leads the league in rushing, as D’Ernest Johnson (251 yards) and De’Veon Smith (239) both rank among the league’s top six individually.
“You run the ball 32, 33 times and throw it 32 or 33, you have that good balance you hope for,” Spurrier said. “It’s worked out that way the last two games.”
Orlando’s defense also has risen in the ranks, now second in total defense at 294.8 yards per game. Cornerback Keith Reaser and linebacker Terence Garvin share the league lead with three interceptions apiece; Anthony Moten’s four sacks also ranks No.1.
“I think we’ve done a nice job executing every weekend,” Gilbert said, “but there’s a lot of work to do. We still feel like we can get a lot better.”
Arizona comes east after a 29-25 home loss to San Antonio, falling short in a wild comeback attempt after four early turnovers staked the Commanders to a 26-0 advantage. John Wolford, a Jacksonville native, threw a trio of interceptions that included an early pick-six.
Though Wolford’s 10 TD passes this year tops Gilbert, he’s also been picked off six times. Rashad Ross has been on the receiving end of six Wolford TD passes.
“You’re always trying to get your best players the ball,” Wolford told Phoenix media. “If they give me a matchup I like and he’s running out there, I’m going to take it. But at the same time, you don’t want to force anything.”
Wolford also has been dangerous as a runner, picking up 99 yards on 24 carries.
“They’ve moved the ball and they’re probably going to move the ball again,” Spurrier said. “And we’re going to move it. Hopefully we’re going to score touchdowns instead of kicking field goals.”
Apollos defensive end Josh Banks Sr., a college teammate of Wolford’s at Wake Forest, noted the Hotshots run a similar offense to their Deacon days.
“It’s not much that we haven’t seen before,” Banks said. “I’ve definitely seen and played against a similar offense.”
Spurrier and Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel also have a connection. It was Neuheisel — a winner of 87 games in 12 seasons coaching Colorado, Washington and UCLA — who first pitched the AAF concept to the Head Ball Coach last fall.