St. Louis’ defense and special teams campaigned hard for three quarters, but the D.C. Defenders managed to stay within the margin-of-error on the scoreboard.  Once the Battlehawks’ offense joined the party, the landslide was on.

Hakeem Butler ran a vertical route and then went vertical to bully Defenders’ cornerback Gareon Conley and snatch a bomb from A.J. McCarron for an 80-yard touchdown – part of a 25-point rally in the fourth quarter – as St. Louis soared to a 45-12 victory at Audi Field on Sunday.

“The win is all I care about; I say it every game. If I have one catch and we win, I don’t give a damn. I just want to win, that’s all that matters to me,” Butler said after he caught two touchdowns and made six receptions for 147 yards, more than half of the Battlehawks’ total offensive output.

“I think it’s just telling about our team and where we’re at, where we’re headed,” he said.

St. Louis intercepted D.C. quarterback Jordan Ta’amu three times and held the Defenders under 3.0 yards-per-play. The Battlehawks converted four D.C. turnovers into 25 points.

“It’s just another building block in what we’re trying to accomplish, as a defense, and as a team,” linebacker Mike Rose, who made a game-high 11 tackles and an interception that led to a STL touchdown, said.

“Obviously last year we weren’t able to beat D.C. (in two attempts), it’s just another step in our program. Just got to build on it,” he said.

McCarron completed 14-of-24 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, both to Butler. Jacob Saylors, Wayne Gallman and Manny Wilkins combined for 94 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

But it was the Battlehawks’ defense that earned head coach Anthony Becht’s vote.

“I told them (in training camp), I’m sick of hearing about the offense. I want this to be the best defense in the league, man.  I want these guys to be great,” Becht said.

On warm afternoon near the banks of the Potomac River, the Hawks’ defenders swamped D.C. from the start.

Cornerback Brandon Sebastian picked Ta’amu on the Defenders’ initial possession and the turnover set-up Butler’s first score – a 13-yard slant from McCarron. D.C. went three-and-out on the next drive, then Nico Bolden blocked the Defenders’ punt and the ‘Hawks took over at D.C.’s 7-yard line.

In what would become an unfortunate theme, St. Louis settled for 37-yard field goal by Andre Szmyt and an 11-0 lead late in the opening quarter. Szmyt drilled another from 51 yards after the offense couldn’t capitalize on Ta’amu’s second INT of the game, this one to Kameron Kelly.

The defense kept swarming and forced a three-and-out to open the second quarter. McCarron found rhythm and STL marched 75 yards in nine plays, but momentum stalled at the goaline.

On his third attempt of the first half, Szmyt was true from 22-yards out and STL held a 17-0 lead with 8:13 before intermission.

“I think in that game we left a lot out on the table especially in the first half – I was not happy at all,” Butler said. And D.C. finally took advantage of St. Louis’ charity.

Cam’Ron Harris plunged to paydirt to put D.C. on the scoreboard and Ta’amu found Kelvin Harmon in the endzone with 18 seconds left before halftime. The Battlehawks retreated to the locker room with only a 17-12 lead to show for a dominant 30 minutes.

Szmyt completed a 4-for-4 afternoon with 39-yard boot – the only scoring in the third quarter – and St. Louis’ 20-12 lead remained too close to call.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Pita Taumoepenu stripped Ta’amu and Willie Harvey pounced on the loose ball for STL. McCarron found Bulter – a Baltimore native with a large constituency in the stands – for a 15-yard gain to put STL inside the D.C. 10-yard line. Gallman scored two plays later and the carnage was just beginning.

Butler sprinted up the numbers and McCarron lofted a rainbow for his favorite 6-foot-6 wide receiver. Butler leaped and caught it high above Conley and the Defender cornerback fell to the turf as Butler sped for an 80-yard TD.

“My family, they don’t get to see me play much with a lot of them being up here in Baltimore, me going to school in Iowa,” Butler said. “More so for my nephews and my sister – I know it means a lot for her, and for me, my nephews, just for them get to see me do what I love and chase this dream still – it’s a beautiful thing.”

“The tape is the tape, (scouts) are going to think what they want, they’re going to try to find the negative, but I don’t really care. I’m just having fun with the guys at this point in my career.”

St. Louis (4-1) remains in the driver’s seat in the UFL’s XFL Division. The Defenders (2-3) sit behind San Antonio (4-1) in third place.

“If you’re a head coach and you’re watching (that) for four quarters man, you sit back and take it in, Becht said.

“I love this team. This team plays their butts off, they care, they believe – everything they do matters every single day of the week.”

“I get a lot of text messages from coaches, special teams’ coaches, I want them to turn our tape on,” “Nobody cares about your stats – if we’re not winning, they’re not going to watch us. So, if we keep winning as a team, we’ll get eyeballs on the Battlehawks.”

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505