Orlando Apollos push to build on hot start against Memphis Express

Orlando Sentinel Correspondent

Two weeks into the Alliance of American Football’s inaugural season, the league already has started to break along the lines of haves and have-nots.

Put the Orlando Apollos squarely among the haves. Maybe even atop the haves, to hear a number of league observers. The Memphis Express, meantime, fall among the have-nots.

That said, the one have-not that wouldn’t need much to transform into a have very well might be the Express. And that’s what has the Apollos on guard as Steve Spurrier’s squad returns to Spectrum Stadium in search of a 3-0 start.

First snap is set for 8 p.m., with the game to be broadcast by NFL Network.

“I think they’ve got a really good team,” Apollos receiver Charles Johnson said of the Express, who stand 0-2 after coughing up a 12-point lead in the final 13 minutes at home against the Arizona Hotshots.

“They should have had those guys beat. I think it’s going to be a tough battle. We’ve just got to go out and put our best foot forward.”

It certainly hasn’t helped that the Express, with Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary at the helm, already have faced the league’s two other 2-0 teams. Then again, there’s no dodging that they contributed to the Hotshots and Birmingham Iron getting to that record.

“It’s gut-check time for us,” Express running back Zac Stacy told Memphis reporters.

Stacy has been one of the bright spots for Memphis. The former Vanderbilt standout, who logged NFL time with the Rams and Jets, earned a line in the AAF books with his 101-yard outing against Arizona, becoming the first rusher to eclipse 100 in a game.

It also was good enough to move alongside San Diego’s JaQuan Gardner for the league’s rushing lead (159 yards).

“He’s a great player,” Apollos defensive end Izaah Burks Sr. said. “He likes to hit that cutback lane, so we’ll have to try to cut it off for him.”

Memphis, though, has struggled to complement Stacy’s performance. Christian Hackenberg’s 189 yards passing are an AAF-low among quarterbacks with at least 40 attempts. By way of comparison, Orlando’s Garrett Gilbert racked up 214 yards in last Sunday’s second quarter at San Antonio.

The Express also are still in search of their first touchdown pass. Add it up, and Memphis lingers among the AAF’s bottom two in most statistical categories.

The Express are last in total yards at just 219 per game, passing yardage (100.5), third-down efficiency (24.5 percent) and tied for last in points (9.0) and sacks allowed (six).

“It’s our job to keep them struggling,” quipped Apollos cornerback Keith Reaser.

Singletary said: “We have to do everything that we can to try and bring Christian up to the point where he feels comfortable in the offense that we’re running.”

There are no worries on that front for the Apollos, who lead the AAF in scoring at 38.5 points per outing. No other team in the league is averaging more than 29.

Garrett comes off a 393-yard passing day at San Antonio, where Johnson pulled in seven receptions for 192 yards. That left both as the league’s runaway leaders in their respective statistical categories.

“Spurrier is a great coach. We all know the ol’ ball coach,” Singletary said. “They’re clicking very well on offense. They know who they are and they know what they want to do.”

The Memphis defense has been better than its statistical performance. The Express have given up an average of 355.5 yards per game, which could make for a long night against Spurrier’s aerial attack.

But Memphis’ four takeaways — two fumbles, two interceptions — matches Orlando for No. 2 in the league behind San Diego. Three came against Arizona, helping stake the Express to that 12-point advantage.

“They’re obviously coming off a tough loss but, man, they really play well on defense,” Gilbert said. “They did a great job of creating pressure up front, created some turnovers on the back end, mixed up their coverages a little bit. They’ll be a challenge.”

One point of emphasis this week for Orlando is to get off to a better start. For all the points put up by the Apollos, they’re still looking for their first in the opening quarter.

“I guess we need to say let’s play like we do the third possession,” Spurrier quipped. “We just didn’t hit anything the first period [last week], and then we never punted after that.”

Things couldn’t much more extreme than last Sunday. The Apollos had the ball for just six offensive snaps — a pair of three-and-outs compounded by an inability to get off the field on defense. San Antonio went on two long touchdown drives that ate up 13:01 of the quarter.

“We need to get off the field,” said defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. “Our offensive is explosive. Coach [Spurrier] does a great job and we need to get the ball back for them faster.”

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