With a playoff spot at stake, quarterback A.J. McCarron sidelined, and the division nemesis from D.C. in town, the St. Louis Battlehawks needed to gut one out.

Who better to be a hero than Mike Panasiuk, the burly center with his gut out?

St. Louis trailed the D.C. Defenders 21-20 in the fourth quarter when Wayne Gallman caught a screen pass from Manny Wilkins and saw green turf ahead – well, that and a 300-pound Polish bulldozer for an escort.

Panasiuk squared up D.C. safety Deontay Anderson and Gallman sprinted for a 38-yard gain that got sweeter when a frustrated Defender shoved Panasiuk and tacked on another 15 yards for unnecessary roughness.

“Shoot, I caught it and (saw) wide-open grass, thank the Lord,” Gallman said. “It was great by the offensive line getting out to the backers, allowing me to have all that space.”

“We know we just needed to take some time, let that screen develop, and then once we saw the look and what they had for us up front, we just executed and waited for that perfect opportunity, and then put it in (Gallman’s) hands,” Panasiuk said.

Gallman plunged into the endzone three plays later, and St. Louis emphatically shut the door on D.C.’s final drive to clinch a playoff spot with a 26-21 win before a lively crowd of 32,403 at The Dome at America’s Center on Sunday.

“We had a few players out today. I thought Manny did a heck of a job; really it was about a collection of coming together and making plays when it mattered,” head coach Anthony Becht said.

Becht likens Panasiuk to Jason Kelce – the prototype for mobile centers that make key downfield blocks. Panasiuk bore down on the Defenders’ second level frequently as the athletic Wilkins (12 carries, 79 yards) paced St. Louis’ rushing attack.

The game was Wilkins first start since 2018, his senior year at Arizona State University. He finished 9-for-18 for 126 yards passing, but he engineered scoring drives on 5-of-9 Battlehawks’ possessions.

“I got out there and pride myself on giving 110 percent every snap I have a chance to get,” Wilkins said. “It meant the world to me to go out there with guys on the field that believed in me, it was definitely special.”

Gallman ran for a pair of touchdowns, but it was his alert special teams’ play that led to the Battlehawks’ first endzone trip.

With the game tied 3-3 midway through the second quarter, D.C. gambled on fourth-and-12 from their own 33-yard line. Punter Paxton Brooks threw an 8-yard completion to Vyncint Smith, but Gallman pounced on Smith and wrapped him up short of the sticks.

“We had a rush going, but my assignment was actually the gunner outside. I was to bluff and then go outside, (then) it all happened perfectly really,” Gallman said.

“Instinctually, I felt as though they had a fake coming and I wish I would’ve got out there a bit earlier because I could’ve possibly picked it off.”

The Battlehawks short-handed offense turned the short field into points.

Saylors capped a seven-play drive with a bruising two-yard touchdown to give St. Louis a 9-3 lead. D.C. responded when kicker Matt McCrane drilled a 49-yard field goal with six seconds before halftime that cut the lead to 9-6.

The Defenders momentum carried into the third quarter.

D.C. drove 63 yards in nine plays and scored on 30-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Ta’amu to Alex Ellis. The two-point try succeeded and D.C. led 14-9. Ta’amu finished 23-for-40 for 196 yards and two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.

The Battlehawks answered on the next possession with a 7-yard scamper from Gallman that restored STL’s three-point lead, 17-14.

Qwynnterrio Cole intercepted a deflected pass on the first play of the fourth quarter and St. Louis cashed in with a 37-yard field goal from Andre Szmyt.

Ta’amu kept the seesaw battle going, as D.C. exhausted the Battlehawks’ defense with a 12-play, 73-yard march. Wide receiver Ty Scott (Missouri State) strolled to paydirt from 17-yards out and St. Louis trailed 21-20 with less than five minutes remaining.

A gorgeous sunny morning with the Cardinals going for a sweep of the Boston Red Sox down the street didn’t damper attendance at The Dome. NFL Hall of Famer Jackie Smith and a large contingent of St. Louis football Cardinals were honored before kickoff.

Wilkins and the offense struggled to find rhythm early.

Wilkins played catch with Hakeem Butler for a 16-yard gain on the game’s first play. But moments later, facing fourth-and-2 from the D.C. 47-yard line, Wilkins lofted a deep ball for Ja’Marcus Bradley that fell incomplete. The Defenders converted good field position into a 48-yard field goal by Matt McCrane and a 3-0 lead.

The Defenders were poised to add more on their next possession.

Ellis isolated linebacker Mike Rose with presnap motion that sprung him open for an 8-yard gain and first down on third-and-8. Then Keke Coutee dashed for 19 yards to put D.C. at the Battlehawks’ 21-yard line. But linebacker Carson Wells stuffed Darius Hagans for a loss and Kameron Kelly picked Ta’amu on the next play to bail St. Louis out of trouble.

Wilkins and company took advantage.

Becht won a coaches’ challenge defensive pass interference moved STL into D.C. territory.

Another downfield block by Panasiuk cleared the way for Wilkins’ 13-yard scramble and first down at the D.C. 24-yard line.

But a penalty and sack quickly put the Battlehawks in a third-and-long pickle.

Wilkins found Saylors for 14-yards and an aggressive Becht left the offense on the field for fourth-and-3. Wilkins battled through multiple tacklers and extended the ball past the marker for a first down.

“It was a designed pass, and I saw man-to-man coverage. We didn’t expect the linebacker to come up and take the running back as fast as he did,” Wilkins said. “At that point, it was all about playing ball and having fun.”

The Defenders defense buckled but didn’t break, and Andre Szmyt’s 26-yard field goal tied the game, 3-3, with 7:59 left in the first half.

 

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