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Orlando Apollos push to stay perfect during matchup with Birmingham Iron

Orlando Sentinel Correspondent

And then there was one.

The Orlando Apollos have had the week to enjoy their status as the Alliance of American Football’s last standing unbeaten, including last week’s frosty triumph in the snow of Salt Lake City.

And yet that could all change in the space of a rainy Alabama afternoon.

As the schedule gurus would have it, next comes the Birmingham Iron — the AAF’s second-to-last unbeaten in a clash that could go a long way toward determining the Eastern Conference title and home field in the postseason.

“It just means we’re leading the division right now,” Spurrier said of the Apollos’ 4-0 start. “There’s six games left in the regular season, and we plan hopefully to play two more playoff games. But our first objective is to win the division and go from there.

“This is a huge game. If Birmingham beats us, we’re tied with them.”

First snap is set for 2 p.m. from Birmingham’s Legion Field, with TNT broadcasting the contest.

The Iron (3-1) dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten with last week’s 12-11 home loss to the San Antonio Commanders. Despite a strong defensive performance, three Birmingham turnovers proved too much to overcome.

That scuttled what had been a hoped-for showdown of unbeatens. Nevertheless, it’s still what in all likelihood will be three meetings of East rivals. They’ll meet again at Spectrum Stadium on the final day of the regular season, with an expected playoff clash one weekend later.

Then again, Spurrier stressed, it’s a little early for all that. A lot can change in six weeks.

“Some teams open up hot and then go bad,” he said. “So we’re going to try our best to not go bad.”

The Apollos are coming off perhaps their best overall performance of the season, especially considering that the 20-11 win over Salt Lake came amid a steady snowfall.

Garrett Gilbert threw for 244 yards and a touchdown, frequently delivering the ball a split-second before getting knocked to the snowy turf. Charles Johnson again led the Apollos with 105 yards on nine catches, and Donteea Dye Jr. got his first touchdown reception.

The Orlando defense also held Salt Lake to one touchdown after giving up multiple big plays one week earlier in a win over Memphis. The defensive excellence included four sacks, with two from new starter Andrew Ankrah.

“That was a really good second half for us,” Spurrier said. “The defense gave up only 11 points. We should be able to score more than 11 offensively.”

That won’t necessarily be easy against a Birmingham defense that has been the backbone of the Iron’s early success.

Birmingham’s stingy 272.8 yards per game tops the league while having forced nine turnovers and sacked opposing QBs seven times. Linebacker Beniquez Brown is the AAF’s No.2 tackler with 26 stops, including 24 solo tackles.

“I think the defense is playing very hard,” Iron coach Tim Lewis told Alabama media. “They’re executing very well, which was nice to see.”

Last week, a goal-line stand in the fourth quarter kept the Iron within striking distance. San Antonio ran five snaps from the Birmingham 1 but wound up settling for a field goal that provided the decisive points.

“I don’t know if we need to try [running] up the middle against them,” Spurrier mused. “But hopefully we have a play or two that work if we get down there. That’s the first objective — to get down there.”

The game also features a matchup of the AAF’s two most prolific passers. Gilbert has accumulated 1,071 yards through four games, the only man to top the 1,000-yard mark. Birmingham’s Luis Perez, a product of Texas A&M-Commerce, is a distant second with 797 yards.

For all his yardage, though, Perez still has yet to connect on a touchdown pass. Expanding on that statistical oddity, all seven Birmingham TDs have been recorded via Trent Richardson runs.

“Trent is a red-zone guy,” Spurrier said of the former Browns first-round pick. “He’s a big, strong, tough running back they know from his days at Alabama. We’ve got to slow him down. And their other running back [Brandon Ross] is very good also.”

Adding to the challenge is a banged-up Apollos defensive unit.

Linebacker Terence Garvin, whose three interceptions leads the AAF, is expected back after missing last week with knee swelling. The same goes for safety Will Hill III, who left early in Salt Lake with a mild concussion.

One bright spot is the possible addition of defensive tackle Jerel Worthy (pectoral), who was hurt in the Apollos’ final preseason contest.

“If you can go, you can go,” said linebacker Reggie Northrup, now sporting a tape job over an injured left thumb. “I’m kind of messed up here myself. But if I’m able to play, I’m going to play. My guys, if they’re able to play, they’re going to play. We don’t have a selfish team.”

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