The Battlehawks are accustomed to physical four-quarter brawls. But the result on Sunday in D.C. was unfamiliar.
St. Louis (2-1) overcame a 14-point deficit to grab a 20-17 lead in the third quarter, but former Battlehawks QB Jordan Ta’amu and the D.C. Defenders (3-0) scored 17 unanswered points on three consecutive drives, then held-off the St. Louis’ comeback attempt for a 34-28 win on Sunday at Audi Field.
A fight broke out in the waning seconds that resulted in ejections from both sides, as tempers boiled over at the conclusion of a chippy afternoon.
“They got us today, that’s part of it, it’s the game of football,” Battlehawks’ quarterback A.J. McCarron said afterwards.
Fortunately for McCarron and company, they won’t wait long for a rematch. The Defenders travel to the Dome at America’s Center on March 18.
D.C. jumped ahead 8-0 when Ta’amu connected with Ethan Wolf for a touchdown and 2-point try on D.C.’s opening possession.
Then St. Louis’ first drive ended in disaster. McCarron’s pass in the flat was intercepted by Michael Joseph and returned to the house.
“We gave them one early. Throwing the out-route, Jovani (Haskins) slips – it was going to be a completion, goes right to the corner. Pick-6.”
Before the D.C. crowd started the beer snake, the Defenders had a 14-0 lead.
But St. Louis stormed back and tied the score before halftime.
McCarron tossed a pair of TDs, one to Brian Hill and another to Hakeem Butler in traffic with just three seconds left in the second quarter.
McCarron finished 26-of-42, for 262 yards and four touchdowns. Butler enjoyed the first 100-yard receiving day for the Battlehawks this season, he went 9 for 105 yards and a score.
“Second half, it was who was going to come out and fight, and take it,” head coach Anthony Becht said. “Quite frankly, we didn’t fight enough, and we didn’t get it.”
But the half started well enough for St. Louis.
The ‘Hawks defense stiffened and forced D.C. to settle for a 41-yard field goal on the first drive of the third quarter, then Darrius Shepherd returned the kickoff 72 yards and set-up the Battlehawks deep in D.C. territory.
McCarron found tight end Jake Sutherland wide open for a 23-yard strike that put St. Louis in front 20-17, the Battlehawks’ only lead of the afternoon.
Ta’amu marched the Defenders 81 yards in 12 plays and capped the drive with a two-yard plunge that wrestled the lead and momentum away from St. Louis. The two-point try was successful and D.C. held a five-point edge with 3:08 remaining in the third quarter.
Mistakes continued to plague St. Louis at critical moments.
On the ensuing possession, McCarron’s arm was struck by the Defenders’ rush while attempting to pass and D.C. recovered the loose ball at the St. Louis’ 24-yard-line. Matt McCrane booted a 35-yard field goal on the first play of the final period that cushioned D.C.’s advantage.
After St. Louis went three-and-out, the Defenders consumed nearly seven minutes of clock and took a commanding 34-20 lead when Chris Blair scored with 6:02 to play.
The Battlehawks’ last-minute magic came too little, too late.
After McCarron was picked at the Defenders’ goaline, Ben DeLuca recovered a fumbled snap by Ta’amu at the D.C. 2-yard-line that kept faint hope alive.
McCarron threw his fourth touchdown to Steven Mitchell on the next play and then connected with Mitchell again for the 2-pointer. With 22 seconds left, St. Louis attempted the fourth-and-15 play to keep possession of the ball, but McCarron was sacked by Davin Bellamy.
The Defenders dropped McCarron in the pocket four times and forced four pivotal turnovers.
The fight for the scoreboard was over, but violence continued after the whistle.
Hill and two Defenders – linebacker Francis Bernard and lineman Rod Taylor – were ejected after punches were thrown and a St. Louis helmet went flying.
“As far as the end of that game is concerned, I take full responsibility for our guys. That’s not how I coach my players; my players should have a better understanding of how we want to be as a team,” Becht said.
“I don’t know who started it, why it got started. Obviously clearly throughout the game things were happening that I saw visually, and we have to find better ways to control that.”
The Battlehawks will debut at the Dome at America’s Center on Sunday. Single-game tickets in the upper bowl are available for the 3 p.m. kickoff against the Arlington Renegades.
“I hope St. Louis has it absolutely rocking,” McCarron said, looking forward to Sunday. “I want us to try to sell every freaking seat we possibly can and have an atmosphere that’s unlike any other.”
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