There’s an old football adage that the hardest games to win are cross country trips, taking a team from the West Coast to the East Coast. The Los Angeles Wildcats learned that lesson the hard way on Saturday, falling 17-14 to the New York Guardians. The Wildcats were competitive throughout the contest at MetLife Stadium, but couldn’t overcome a strong defensive showing from the home team.
Here are three key takeaways from LA’s loss, dropping it to 1-3 on the young XFL season.
#1. Offensively, the Wildcats are too one dimensional
The passing display between LA quarterback Josh Johnson and wide receiver Tre McBride was something special on Saturday. The dynamic duo took New York by storm, connecting for 127 yards and a touchdown. Over the past two weeks, Johnson has found his favorite target 13 times for 236 yards and three touchdowns.
The problem is that while LA’s passing game is superb, the ground game is nowhere to be found. On Saturday, the Wildcats ran the ball 13 times for just 40 yards. This created too many third-and-long situations and forced the Wildcats into predictable passing situations. The result was a team that went just 2-of-12 on third down with a woeful conversion rate of 17 percent.
#2. Defensively, the Wildcats mean business
Los Angeles head coach Winston Moss made waves when he fired LA’s defensive coordinator, Pepper Johnson, one game into the season. Johnson is a decorated NFL player and coach, winning a combined five Super Bowls and spending 13 years as an assistant coach under Bill Belichick. However, after the Wildcats gave up 37 points against the Houston Roughnecks in their opener, Moss felt that he needed to make a change. That move has paid off over the past two games.
On Saturday, LA held the Guardians to 250 total yards and just 5-of-13 on third down (38 percent). The defense also sacked New York quarterback Luis Perez three times, keeping the Wildcats in the game until the final minutes of the contest. Last week, against the D.C. Defenders, the Los Angeles defense was even better, allowing just nine points against one of the XFL’s most potent offenses. It’s a small sample size, but right now, the LA defense is keeping the Wildcats competitive.
#3. Even in a league that is trying to limit special teams, kicking matters
As Moss and the Wildcats head back to Southern California, they can find positives in almost every aspect of their game. The one area that needs an immediate upgrade though is the kicking game. Right now, the Wildcats have converted just 2-of-5 field goals this season. On Saturday, LA could have won, or at least forced overtime, if kicker Nick Novak knocked down his field goals. Unfortunately, he had one kick blocked and pushed his second attempt wide of the uprights. Those miscues were the difference between an LA team flying home happy with a .500 record and a squad looking to rebound at 1-3.
Looking ahead, the Wildcats have a great chance to get back to their winning ways next week. On March 8, LA will host a struggling Tampa Bay Vipers team at 9 p.m.
Peter Schinkai is a former sports reporter with the Kalamazoo Gazette, Roswell Daily Record and DeKalb Daily Chronicle. He also been part of two start-up sports organizations, and feel that the XFL has the foundation to be a lasting spring football league. This includes a tremendous market in LA. Follow him on Twitter at @xflschinkai.