Another enormous crowd packed The Dome at America’s Center for an XFL football game, but for the first time St. Louis’ football faithful didn’t fume at their favorite infamous target.

A new public enemy No. 1 was in town – running back Abram Smith and the unbeaten D.C. Defenders.

Unfortunately, they felt right at home.

Smith rushed for 218 yards and three scores – including two long touchdown sprints for 62 and 70 yards – as the Defenders (5-0) battered the Battlehawks (3-2) 28-20 on Saturday night.

It was the Battlehawks’ first loss in four games played at the Dome since 2020.

“That’s a helluva job by them running the football, man,” St. Louis head coach Anthony Becht said afterwards.

“Listen, they came with a purpose today. They barely had to pass – 18 passes for 90 yards, I mean why would you pass?”

The Battlehawks had a chance to pull off fourth-quarter heroics again, but it proved too little, too late.

A.J. McCarron unloaded a 50-yard touchdown pass to Steven Mitchell Jr. with 4:19 remaining in the game and the pair connected again on the 2-point conversion. The ‘Hawks forced D.C. to punt on the ensuing possession, and McCarron and company took the field again with two minutes left and 85 yards to travel.

But Defenders’ cornerback Michael Joseph – who returned an interception for a touchdown in the first meeting between the teams – didn’t bite on McCarron’s pump fake and he picked-off the pass intended for Mitchell to end the Battlehawks’ comeback bid.

“That last drive, I feel good about what we’re doing,” Becht said. “A.J. took a shot down the sidelines, and Joseph did a nice job not going for the cheese there.”

“We’ll definitely be better. The way we played today is just unacceptable – it’s hard to swallow when you get run on like that.”

MARCH 18, 2023: The DC Defenders against the St Louis Battlehawks at The Dome at Americas Center on March 18th, 2023 in St. Louis, MO.
(© Joe Puetz/XFL)


McCarron went 22-for-34 for 236 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Hakeem Butler paced St. Louis with 9 catches for 86 yards.

If Kaw is the Law inside the BattleDome, nobody told the officials.

The Battlehawks were whistled for ten penalties – nine in the first half, with several coming at critical moments.

“We had a lot of penalties that kind of hurt ourselves tonight, put us behind the sticks a lot,” McCarron said.

“When we were 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-medium, and then getting penalties to bring us back to 3rd-and-long – we just can’t do those things and beat a good team.”

St. Louis moved 72 yards in 16 plays to open the scoring but settled for a 36-yard field goal by Donny Hageman.

The ‘Hawks appeared to hit pay-dirt two plays earlier, when McCarron found Darrius Shepherd for an 8-yard touchdown, but the play was negated by a holding penalty. Faced with 3rd-and-18, McCarron’s pass to Austin Proehl in the endzone failed to draw a pass interference flag, much to the displeasure of 35,868 in attendance.

When Becht took the first timeout of the game, referee Michael Vandervelde announced that “Seattle” had called timeout – and STL partisans already cranky with the officiating turned downright hostile.

The ‘Hawks were marching for a score right before halftime, as a promising two-minute drill moved the ball into D.C. territory. St. Louis faced 3rd-and-five from the Defenders’ 40-yard-line, but a false start penalty killed the momentum and STL went to the locker room empty-handed.

“We had some decent plays, you know,” Becht said. “A Penalty here, a penalty there – it’s just little things that kind of held us back.”

The Defenders’ ground game didn’t need any help from the stripes.

Smith dashed 62 yards for a touchdown and former St. Louis’ quarterback Jordan Ta’amu found O.J. Hammond on the 2-point play to put D.C. ahead 8-3 with 9:15 remaining in the second quarter.

Four Battlehawks’ drives started inside the STL 20-yard-line, as D.C. controlled field position throughout the game. Pinned at STL 4-yard-line with under five minutes to go in the first half, disaster struck.

Defenders’ linebacker Andre Mintze sacked McCarron and the loose ball flew into the hands of D.C. defensive back Montae Nicholson. The visitors took advantage of the short field when Smith punched it in from 5-yards out for his second TD.

Shepherd continued to sparkle on special teams. The Blue Springs High School alum opened the second half with an 80-yard kick return to the D.C. 16-yard-line.

The optimism proved fleeting, as St. Louis squandered another opportunity to turn the tide.

Brian Hill was stopped for no gain, and two incomplete passes later, Becht brought on Hageman for a 34-yard field goal that trimmed the deficit to 14-6.

D.C. got the ball back and wasted no time.

Smith blasted untouched into the ‘Hawks secondary, made one defender miss and raced for a 70-yard touchdown.

“All the credit to the O-line. The boys upfront, they gave me big holes and they left me one-on-one with the safety…as a runner, you gotta make that guy miss, so for me to do that and have some burners afterwards, you know – I knew I had speed, but I didn’t know I had that much,” Smith said.

St. Louis trailed 20-6 but responded with 6:20 to play in the third quarter when McCarron connected with George Campbell, who tight-roped the back of the endzone between two Defenders. McCarron dove for the goal line on the 2-point try but was denied and D.C led 20-12.

Ta’amu hit Lucky Jackson for 28 yards to put D.C. in business on the first possession of the fourth quarter and D’Eriq King’s 10-yard rush put D.C. in front by two scores again. Ta’amu converted the 2-point try and the Hawks’ trailed 28-12 with 12:15 remaining.



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