Defenders get back in win column at home

Pep Hamilton talks to his team in one of their offensive huddles. (Credit: XFL.com)

Home must be where the heart is for the D.C. Defenders (3-2, 2-1 in the East Division), who grounded the St. Louis BattleHawks (3-2, 1-1), 15-6, on Sunday afternoon, claiming for now the first spot in the East Division.

“It makes a huge difference to have what we consider to be the best home-field advantage in the XFL,” D.C. head coach Pep Hamilton said.

After an early interception, D.C. quarterback Cardale Jones was sat down in favor of 6’7” Tyree Jackson, a backup who, up until that point, had attempted four passes.

The switch behind center paid off almost promptly.

After a Taylor Russolino kickoff bounced short at the D.C. 22-yard-line, Jackson and the Defender offense began the drive in St. Louis territory. In three plays, Jhurell Pressley ran for 34 yards. Jackson finished off the drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass, his first of his professional career, to tight end Khari Lee, to take a 6-3 lead.

Reigning XFL Star of the Week Jordan Ta’amu responded by driving the BattleHawks 63 yards for a tying field goal.

After allowing 32 points per game the previous two weeks, the Defender defense held the visitors to six points going into the intermission.

Jonathan Hayes’ offense went three-and-out to start the second half and an ensuing 28-yard DeAndre Thompkins end around was key in setting up D.C. kicker Ty Rausa for a field goal. He nailed it, washing the taste from a miss on his first try, in the second period, out of his mouth. Rausa would connect on another attempt later in the quarter.

From their own five-yard-line after stopping St. Louis on downs, the Defenders would embark on a 12-play, seven-yard drive, bleeding over five minutes off the clock.

Ta’amu and the BattleHawk offense was once again ineffective on the following series, and a Marquette King punt was blocked by linebacker Jameer Thurman and recovered by Jonathan Celestin, who rumbled 13 yards to the visitors’ four-yard-line.

The miscue would lead to Rausa’s third made field goal of the day. Down nine points, the BattleHawks would have one final chance on a fourth-and-one with two minutes left, but Siupeli Anau and Tracy Sprinkle would combine for the stuff, sealing the visitors’ fate.

Ta’amu and his unit couldn’t get it done in the red zone, stalling three times.

With 402 yards, the two teams combined for the most rushing yardage in an XFL game yet.

Leading D.C. was Pressley, who was granted 15 carries for 107 yards. Donnel Pumphery would add another 37 yards on just as many carries, and Jackson demonstrated his mobility with 32 yards of his own. For St. Louis, Matt Jones (13 rushes, 70 yards) and Christine Michael (12 rushes, 69 yards) had almost identical numbers.

With the ground game on track, Jackson, the Mid-American Conference’s 2018 MVP, passed for only 39 yards on 14 attempts. Having thrown for 876 yards and five touchdowns coming into the game, Ta’amu passed for 174 yards on 15 completions, a third of which were pulled in by L’Damian Washington (5 receptions, 114 yards.)

“Cardale is our starter,” Hamilton said, adding that the switch after the interception was purely a coincidence. “The reasoning for playing both quarterbacks is because they both offer specific skill sets that the defense will ultimately have to defend.”

There’s no disagreement or controversy in the quarterback room.

“I’m very comfortable with whatever Coach Pep does,” Jackson said. “He’s been around the game a long time and whatever he thinks we need to do to win, then I trust him.”

St. Louis safety Kenny Robinson, the only NFL Draft-eligible XFL player, pulled in his second interception of the season and, in the fourth quarter, added his first sack.

After jumping offside on a play previous in the second quarter, D.C. edge rusher Anthony Johnson buried Ta’amu for an eleven-yard loss, his first sack since Week Two against the New York Guardians. Safety Tyree Kinnel led the team with ten tackles.

The Dallas Renegades (2-3, 2-1 in the West Division) will visit Audi Field next Sunday for a 4 p.m. start.

On a distinctive route, Robinson looks to get job done

Kenny Robinson of the St. Louis BattleHawks took a unique path to the XFL. (Credit: XFL.com)

Kenny Robinson let his intentions be known before this revamped XFL’s inaugural season even began. The St. Louis BattleHawks’ 21-year-old safety tweeted in January that he had been accepted into the 2020 NFL Draft pool, but his path to the league will go down as being a wholly unique one.

The road began at the Imani Christian Academy in Pittsburgh. As a Saint, Robinson played defensive back, quarterback, and wide receiver. In his time at the school, he was named as his classification’s defensive player of the year and was an all-conference selection on both sides of the football.

He chose to play college football in Morgantown, West Virginia, making 20 starts for the Mountaineers. In his freshman year, he returned an interception 94 yards for a touchdown against the Texas Longhorns.

In 2018, as a sophomore, Robinson was named as a first-team all-conference defensive back. He started the entire season at safety, ranking second on the defense with 77 total tackles.

In the team’s last home game of the season, a tilt with no. 6 Oklahoma to decide which program would play Texas in the Big 12 title game, Robinson intercepted a pass from eventual Heisman winner Kyler Murray. The second-year safety also recovered a fumble and made seven tackles in the 59-56 loss.

Up until this point, Robinson’s path to the pros had been an ordinary one.

But an academic code of conduct violation soon changed that.

“I was taking online courses while I was [at WVU] in my sophomore year in the fall,” Robinson explained. “I had asked some girl to do a few of my assignments and I ended up asking her to do all of my classes. So, she ended up doing the majority of my classes.”

In the spring semester, while Robinson was participating in spring football with his team, he said, the girl ended up doing another assignment of his. The university red-flagged it. Robinson was called to student conduct and had to make a court appearance before he was expelled from the school.

“It was a mistake, pretty much,” Robinson admitted. “It was just a mistake.”

Robinson ended his time at West Virginia as the team’s active career leader in interceptions. He entered the transfer portal and prominent programs came calling. He thought of returning home to play in the same defensive backfield as Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford for the Pitt Panthers. He also thought of moving to the swamp to join the Florida Gators.

Around the same time as his recruitment, his mom was diagnosed with cancer. Rather than argue with WVU about its refusal to release his transcripts, he opted to forego his amateur standing to put his name into the XFL Draft pool.

“I just need to help take care of my mom, so that was really the major emphasis on everything,” Robinson said. “I had to get that handled before going back to school.”

Robinson has patrolled the air for a St. Louis defense that ranks first in points allowed per game (15.5) and second in pass yards allowed a game (173.0) Through the first four weeks, Robinson has registered 16 combined tackles and an interception.

In Week Three, he leapt in front of a Matt McGloin pass and snatched the football, stumbling before pressing his hand into the turf to rebalance himself. He picked up a few more yards and was forced out of bounds. The crowd at The Dome roared.

“It’s like being back in college,” Robinson said of the atmosphere. “That fans were so loud and all into the game. It was a great experience.”

Robinson has spoken with a handful of NFL franchises, he said, mostly regarding background and the incident of his dismissal from school.

One piece of advice from BattleHawks head coach and general manager Jonathan Hayes, a former Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end, has stuck out to Robinson.

“Just learning to always handle your business first,” Robinson said. “Always focus on work and keep the main thing, the main thing.”

The safety wants to bring St. Louis its first professional football crown since the Rams’ Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk helped beat Steve McNair’s Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. The main thing for right now though, is Cardale Jones and the D.C. Defenders, who await the BattleHawks for a Sunday afternoon matchup.

XFL Defenders were dominated on the road again

DC Defenders CB Doran Grant looks on as Tampa Bay celebrates its third touchdown of the game. (Credit: XFL.com)

In a way, it was the perfect scenario. A team attempting to rebound from an ugly loss the week previous and prove to its critics that it was stout. Another team, fielding its understudy quarterback, who entered as the only club without a win to its name.

But at a point, underneath the lights at Raymond James Stadium Sunday night, it became predictable. Obvious, even. The Tampa Bay Vipers (1-3, 1-1 in East Division) were going to grant the ball to DeVeon Smith or Jacques Patrick and dare the weary D.C. Defenders (2-2, 1-1) to stuff them. The hosts’ daunting ground offense, paired with the inability of Pep Hamilton’s offense to drive the ball, contributed to the Snakes’ 25-0 victory.

The stats for the Defender offense looked as if someone had popped a certain football video game into their game console and set the game’s quarters to their shortest length. The attack gained 107 net yards on a total of 39 snaps, both being the least of any club in a single game through four weeks. The Vipers, however, scored on each of their first three drives.

Again, Cardale Jones had a difficult go of it. The quarterback, who led the league in passing through its first two weeks, threw for only 72 yards on nine completions. At home, Jones had thrown for 499 yards, nearly three times what the he passed for against L.A. and Tampa.

All night, Tampa Bay hurried the Defenders’ off their field. D.C. went three-and-out four times. Another drive ended on an interception on its third play. Only one time did Jones and company venture into Viper territory, a blocked field goal ultimately keeping them off the scoreboard. That particular drive happened to be to the only one of the Defenders’ which lasted greater than six plays.

Meanwhile, the Vipers, quarterbacked by former Oklahoma State Cowboy Taylor Cornelius, picked up more first downs (11) in its initial two possessions than did D.C. (8) the entire contest. All said, Tampa Bay enjoyed 29 first downs, the most of any team in a game this year.

The Defenders’ defense was on the field for 80 plays, more than all but the St. Louis BattleHawks against the Houston Roughnecks in Week One.

Cornelius completed 24 of 31 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. He added a touchdown on the ground, sprinting right 17 yards on a third-and-four before being crunched by the Defenders’ Desmond Lawrence at the goal-line.

Jacques Patrick and DeVeon Smith became the first duo to each surpass the century mark on the ground. Patrick, a former Florida State Seminole, scored his first professional touchdown in the first quarter and ended the contest with 21 carries and 108 yards. Smith took 24 gives for 122 yards.

D.C. ran for a season-low 46 yards, most of which were credited to Donnel Pumphery (34 yards, 7 attempts.)

Punter Hunter Niswander averaged 46 yards on his seven punts.

“We have to get back to D.C. and fix this together,” D.C. head coach Pep Hamilton said after the game. “I have to evaluate what we’re doing when we play outside of D.C. There’s no excuse for it. We’ve got to play better football on the road.”

After a two-week span in which the Defenders were about as successful on the road as a deer on crutches, the team will return to Audi Field Sunday for a matchup with the East-leading St. Louis BattleHawks.

D.C. put in check in decisive 39-9 loss to Wildcats

DC Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones attempts to avoid the pass rush. (Credit: XFL.com)

The D.C. Defenders (2-1, 1-0 in the East) traveled across the country Sunday to Carson, California for a meeting with the Los Angeles Wildcats (1-2, 0-2 in the West.) D.C. was outclassed in all three phases and was bested by 30 points at the Dignity Health Sports Park.

The Defenders entered the game having handily beaten New York, 27-0, in Week Two. They boasted the XFL’s best point differential (+39) and premier passing offense, an air attack that experienced difficulty the entire evening.

“[The game] didn’t get away from us,” D.C. head coach Pep Hamilton said after the game. “We never had it. I felt like we had our backs against the wall the entire game. It’s our job to really settle our guys down and make the adjustments that we need to make to stay in the game, and we didn’t do that today.”

Wildcat signal-caller Josh Johnson, making his second start after being hobbled by a thigh injury that kept him out Week One, took full advantage of a pass interference penalty called on a third down, keeping alive his team’s opening drive.

On the awarded first down, the quarterback took the snap from under center at the D.C. 40, feigned a handoff to his running back, and rolled before floating a deep pass to Tre McBride. McBride, swapped by D.C. during training camp for former Washington Redskins wideout Rashad Ross, pulled the ball in with his back to the endzone then turned and lunged into the endzone for six.

McBride, the son of current Quartermaster General of the United States Army Douglas McBride would catch another touchdown later in the half.

After passing for 499 yards and throwing only one interception in his first two starts, Defender quarterback Cardale Jones began the game by tossing picks on two of D.C.’s first three drives.

The thieves, cornerbacks Arrion Springs and Mike Stevens, were understudies filling in for injured first-stringers Jaylen Dunlap and Harlan Miller.

After McBride’s second score, the Defenders displayed what could be argued as the unluckiest series of any in the young season. Jhurrel Pressley muffed the kickoff, giving his offense a go of it from its own 6. The headsets malfunctioned, disallowing communication between Hamilton and his players. Finally, with 5:25 left in the second period, punter Hunter Niswander didn’t even bother trying to punt the football, coughing it up and setting the Wildcats up four yards from the D.C. goal-line.

Two plays later, L.A. tailback Martez Carter would slip by the hip of his left guard for his first XFL touchdown, stretching his team’s lead to 27-0 after a successful one-point conversion.

The Defenders provided a glimmer of hope before going into the break, as kicker Ty Rausa split the uprights with 30 seconds remaining.

At halftime, Jones’ had gone 6-13 for two interceptions and 39 yards. As Jones had trouble, Josh Johnson showed why 13 NFL franchises found him useful enough to sit in their quarterback meetings. The 33-year-old cousin of Marshawn Lynch distributed the ball for 128 yards and two scores, hitting on 10 of 16 attempts.

D.C. received the football to begin the second half and drove as far as the Wildcats’ 27. The drive was killed by another interception, this time into the hands of safety Jack Tocho. The turnover again led to points on the other end, as a seven-play, 81-yard march was capped by an 18-yard touchdown pass to Carter.

A fourth pick—and yet another Wildcat touchdown, led to Cardale Jones being pulled in favor of former University of Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson. Jones closed his day 13-26 for only 103 yards for a rating of 20.7, the lowest of any quarterback with at least 20 attempts in a game this season.

“He is our starting quarterback,” Hamilton said of Cardale Jones after the game, eliminating any rumors of an in-season competition.

“I’m enjoying the process, even after a loss,” Jones said. “It’s not a real testament to our team. The real testament is to see how we bounce back Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday in practice getting ready for Tampa Bay.”

LSU product Nick Brosette would scamper 38 yards for a touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter. The score would do little to raise the spirits of a team that will now enter Week Four unsure of itself.

Sharing time in the backfield, Brosette (75 yards), Khalid Abdullah (47 yards), and Donnel Pumphery (40 yards) were each granted eight carries. Tight end Khari Lee would lead the Defenders in receiving with 38 yards on three grabs, while Rashad Ross would catch one of six targets for 17 yards.

The Defenders defense, a strong suit that got off the plane in Southern California averaging three takeaways a game, failed to force a Wildcat turnover. Through the air, the Defenders allowed Johnson 278 yards, a 72% completion rate, and a 148.0 rating, the closest to perfect of any passer through three weeks. McBride would finish with five catches for 109 yards, two yards more than the entire D.C. receiving corps combined.

Conversely, L.A. took five balls, the most in any game this year.

He who holds the honor of scoring the first defensive touchdown in Defenders history, Bradley Sylve, finished the game with a tackle. Defenders tackle Anthony Johnson was absent from the stat lines.

“We have a good football team,” Hamilton reminded the press. “They were the better team today. We didn’t help ourselves with […] the untimely penalties, the turnovers, and all of the above.”

The Defenders will look to rebound Sunday at 7 p.m. in another away matchup against a team who has yet to secure a victory, the Tampa Bay Vipers.

Former CFL All-Star Derek Dennis awarded to reeling Guardians

Former Calgary Stampeder Derek Dennis is now a New York Guardian (Credit: stampeders.ca)

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” the burly man who tips the scale at nearly 350 pounds said. “You never really forget, you just get readjusted to it.”

It was announced late Tuesday night that Derek Dennis, formerly a standout offensive lineman in the Canadian Football League (CFL), was awarded on waivers to the New York Guardians. Voted the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman while with the Calgary Stampeders in 2016, Dennis helped pave the way for the league’s leading rusher, Jerome Messam.

Along with having the opportunity to play on television, where his family could watch, Dennis listed no longer having to deal with Canadian currency and conversion rates as a positive of returning to the United States to play the game.

“Playing maybe in New York, where I’m from, and my family could come to MetLife,” the newest Guardian said while awaiting allocation last Friday. “They could come to the game and watch me play.”

Dennis, a Temple alum, added that his parents haven’t seen him play a whole lot of football in the past five or six years.

With the CFL’s new collective bargaining agreement going into effect this season, Dennis opted to leave Canada for the XFL. The CBA, Dennis said, raised players’ minimum salaries without upping the salary cap also.

“[It’s] sort of put a squeeze on veterans and teams kind of put an emphasis on where they want to spend their money,” said Dennis, who also spent time on rosters in the National Football League and even the now-defunct Arena Football League. “If you spend it on three or four guys at a certain position, the other guys sort of get left out.”

Other notable players to migrate to the relaunched XFL from the CFL include wideouts S.J. Green, who had 716 receptions for 10,222 yards and 60 touchdowns while with Montreal and Toronto, and former Appalachian State quarterback-turned-receiver Armanti Edwards, who caught 244 balls for 3,181 yards and 16 touchdowns in stints with Saskatchewan and Toronto.

Dennis felt, as a three-time West Division All-Star and Grey Cup champion, that he wasn’t getting the monetary respect he deserved.

“Just from watching how free agency was unfolding for a lot of guys, there were a lot of veterans that I respected that either weren’t getting the offers that they felt they deserved or taking low-end deals to make sure they had a job,” Dennis said.

He stressed that people sometimes forget that, as professional athletes, the players still have a family life with kids at home.

“So the money that we feel like we deserve,” Dennis said. “We’re going to go for it just because we work hard for it. That’s how I feed my children, that’s how I keep a roof over my head, and that’s how I keep clothes on my kids’ backs.”

With a wider field and concepts such as the a one-yard buffer between players on the line of scrimmage prior to the football being snapped, Dennis said that playing in the CFL taught him to be patient and to be comfortable playing in space. He also pointed out that 12 men line up on each side, rather than 11, and the process of picking up blitzes and spotting defensive substitutions and sets was more complicated.

“I’m going to probably have to understand that I’m back in the phone booth, which I feel like is really my strength,” said Dennis, who counts his run-blocking as a strength.

Dennis realizes the level of talent in the XFL is high, but he still wants fans to recognize him throughout the course of a game.

“I’m expecting guys that are hungry […] I play with the mindset of, I don’t want nobody to look at me and go ‘Man, that guy sucks.’ Whenever I touch any type of field or court, I’m going to give it my all, 100%, because I want people to walk away with a great intention of me.”

Dennis’ Guardians, having lost two straight after a Week One victory against Tampa Bay, will square off against the Los Angeles Wildcats Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium, 75 miles away from Dennis’ high school in Pawling, New York.

Former WVU star Devine wants chance in the XFL

Noel Devine (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The segments are grainy, but a figure distinguishes himself. Dressed in red and white, he dekes, spins, and outraces hordes of defenders in a way that, if not for his size, would prompt parents from opposing high schools to demand a birth certificate be presented.

“The plays that I made and the way that I played the game in high school has still got people talking to this day,” Noel Devine, now 31, said proudly, referring to the YouTube cut-ups. “My biggest accomplishment would be my highlight reels. Everything else speaks for itself.”

Devine ranks third all-time in rushing at West Virginia University, behind only former teammate Pat White and Avon Cobourne. He’s second in all-purpose yards (5,761), trailing burner and seven-year NFL vet Tavon Austin, and has the most receptions (98) by a running back in Mountaineer history. He’s one of eight players from North Fort Myers high school to have his jersey retired, others including Deion Sanders and Jevon Kearse.

Devine grew up in Fort Myers, living between the homes of his grandmother, his mom and stepdad, and, later, the family of a former Pop Warner teammate. Playing football across the bridge from Fort Myers in Cape Coral provided Devine a sense of relief and a hope of making something of himself.

“[Football] was something I felt helped me get away from what I was going through with losing my mom,” he said, mentioning that his mother died due to AIDS when he was 12. “It was an escape and as soon as I put my hand on the ball, it was something I enjoyed doing and something I was good at doing.”

Devine eventually began to notice how he was outracing defenders, oftentimes to the endzone. To say the least, he was good. But, come high school, some looked at his size and had their reservations.

“I remember nights being on the back porch at my grandmother’s house lifting weights after my 8th grade year, just trying to prepare myself,” Devine said. “People were like, ‘Oh he’s too small, he’s not going to play running back.’”

By his freshman year of high school at North High, Devine said, he was bench-pressing 315 pounds. He soon learned that his father and uncle attended the same high school in the 1980s.

“It was an amazing feeling to know that I was following the same footsteps and that there was a little family tradition there,” Devine said.

As a ninth-grader, he played on the varsity squad and, after an eye-popping run, many believed him not to be a freshman. His average carry was good for more than nine yards.

By his senior campaign, he was a five-star all-purpose back who ran scampered for 2,148 yards and 31 touchdowns. Devine was offered by Alabama, Florida, and USC, among others. He committed to play for offensive designer Rich Rodriguez and WVU in March of 2007.

However, he almost didn’t qualify academically. He thought of going through a prep school, visiting Milford Academy, the same seminary LeSean McCoy attended.

“I was going to come in and rep behind [McCoy],” Devine said. “I took the visit and thought ‘This place looks creepy.’ There was a graveyard right behind the football field, a shed as a weight room. In the middle of New York, it just looked haunted.”

Instead, Devine reworked his grades through computer courses and enrolled in Morgantown, where he finally graduated from in December.

“It was time-consuming and it was challenging, but it was definitely worth it,” Devine said. “Taking classes online is way different than being on campus and having hands-on and tutors and mentors to guide you through and kind of help out, but I got it done. Football mindset, no excuses, man.”

On the field, he was a two-time All-Big East honoree and one of four players in the history of the conference to surpass 4,000 career rushing yards.

Devine made a name for himself, becoming the quickest WVU player to ever rush for 100 yards in a game, reaching the mark in two carries at Maryland. He filled the shoes of an injured Steve Slaton in the Fiesta Bowl as a freshman, scoring a pair of touchdowns against Sam Bradford’s Oklahoma Sooners. In his junior year, he was one of 16 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award.

After moving on from West Virginia, Devine’s physical stature once again came into question as a detriment. He estimates he weighed 160 at the Senior Bowl and 20 pounds heavier by the Combine, where he didn’t run because of a toe injury.

He went unselected in that spring’s draft, but was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. His time in the City of Brotherly Love last less than a week, as one of his best friends was killed and pressure weighed on Devine’s shoulders.

“My dreams turned to a nightmare,” Devine said. “I was devastated, basically walking out of Philly just in disbelief. I couldn’t compete for the job I needed to do. I felt like I just had anxiety, worrying about punt returns.”

Without football, he felt empty.

“This is something I worked for all my life. This is my dream. This is what I want to do. It’s what I’m happy doing. I turned my back on my dreams.”

Devine landed with the Omaha Nighthawks in the since-disbanded United Football League. He would later join a couple of teams in the Canadian Football League, but his playing time was limited by established league veterans.

“I never thought I would take those routes,” Devine said. “My biggest fear was to not make it in the NFL.”

Most recently, Devine made plays for the reigning American Arena League-champion West Virginia Roughriders, sporting colors almost as flashy as his highlight tapes. In Wheeling, Devine said, he was making sure that he still had the affection for the game.

“You’ve got to really ask yourself, ‘Do you love the game?’” Devine said. “It was a great experience to be back in West Virginia, to be around those fans that know me and see me in their eyes as a legend.”

Devine has his sights set on greater, however. He recognizes that, from critical and political standpoints, his window is closing.

“It felt great, man,” he said of his time in the AAL. “Just being back out there running around, I feel like I haven’t lost a step. My body really hasn’t taken a beating, so I feel fresh. I feel young.”

Last Monday, Devine participated with roughly 20 others in an invitational workout in Dallas. The scouts judged change-of-direction in footwork drills and route-running against air.

“I feel like there are always second chances and second opportunities. I feel like I should be able to have one and a lot of people want to see it […] I’m just trying to get a taste of it.”

Although he hasn’t had any contact with XFL clubs, Devine is willing to work his way up from Team Nine.

To whoever takes the chance on who many call the most exciting player in WVU lore, Devine said, “They’ll get a playmaker that can take the top off of a defense. Someone who’ll make big plays and that’s accountable. I’m what they’re looking for.”

Defenders stymie Guardians, climb up East rankings

DC Defenders Quarterback Cardale Jones (Credit: XFL.com)

The clock flashed :02 as the Guardians’ Marquise Williams reached for the snap from the shotgun. D.C. defensive end Tavaris Barnes screamed off of the left edge and gave chase to the rolling quarterback. Williams pivoted, suddenly switching direction and evading the Defender. Affording himself some distance from Barnes, he set his sights downfield, pointed and cocked his right arm. By the time Barnes lunged to tackle him, the ball was floating high in the air.

Safeties Rahim Moore Sr. and Carlos Merritt batted the ball from Mekale McKay’s clutches, but, in all actuality, the game had been over for much longer.

Kevin Gilbride’s New York Guardians (1-1) entered the nation’s capital Saturday expecting better against Pep Hamilton’s D.C. Defenders (2-0.) From the outset, quarterback Matt McGloin and company had trouble advancing the football, receiving the opening kickoff only to promptly give the ball to the Defenders three plays later.

D.C. wasted no time, embarking on an 11-play, 85-yard scoring march. The drive started with a 25-yard strike from Cardale Jones to Eli Rogers, who played in the contest despite his mother’s funeral being held the same day. Facing fourth-and-two from New York’s 47-yard-line later in the series, Jones galloped for 14. Six plays later, wideout DeAndre Thompkins pulled in his first XFL grab, a 13-yard touchdown.

The next Guardian possession looked to be another three-and-out as Justin Vogel lined up to punt on fourth-and-one. Or so it seemed. Playing personal protector, backup quarterback Marquise Williams, who held off Chicago Bears passer Mitchell Trubisky in their time at Chapel Hill, took a direct snap and wheeled for 16 yards.

The Defenders put an end to any momentum less than a minute later. Guardian tailback Darius Victor hauled in a McGloin checkdown and charged forward, colliding with former Bronko Nagurski awardee Scooby Wright. In came five-season NFL vet Rahim Moore Sr., who extracted the football from Victor’s grasp before a scuffle broke out post-whistle.

Again, the Defenders slowly worked their way down the field for a score, this time a 27-yard Ty Rausa field goal to make a nine-point D.C. lead.

In the following Guardian possessions, McGloin got in his own way, missing the mark on a deep pass and gifting the ball to D.C.’s Matt Elam, bobbling a snap, and intentionally grounding a ball on third down.

A 40-yard hook-up from Jones to Rashad Ross within the last two minutes of the first half afforded Ty Rausa another three points, this time from 36 yards out.

Combined with his criticism of offensive playcaller G.A. Mangus’s gameplan before heading into the tunnel at halftime, a pick-six thrown by McGloin early in the second half led to his benching in the fourth quarter. For the day, the Penn State product threw 8-for-19 for 42 yards and two interceptions.

On their first series of the third quarter, D.C. called seven straight rush plays, attempting to crush the soul of the Guardians. An interception thrown by Jones in the redzone kept the window slightly cracked for New York.

During the Defenders’ first possession of the final quarter, Jones assured his appearance on highlight tapes with a magical play on third down. The 6’5” signal-caller was twisted down by defensive end Bunmi Rotimi Jr., mishandling the football. Jones dropped to his knees to retrieve it, then escaped the pocket to find Thompkins for 25 yards. The drive ended with a Rausa field goal.

“It kind of just slipped out of my hand as I was trying to catch my balance on the ground,” said Jones of the zany play. “I didn’t hear a whistle, so I got back up and continued the scramble drill. DeAndre made a great play staying in-bounds and catching it and getting the first down.

With a touchdown catch by tight end Derrick Hayward late in the frame to make it 27-0, Hamilton opted to attempt the league’s first three-point conversion, however unsuccessfully.

Like last week, the Guardians were dreadful come third down, converting on a single one of their 11 tries. The team’s net yards (137) and net passing yards (66) were the least of any team within the XFL’s first two weekends.

The D.C. offense picked up 16 first downs, also going 9-for-18 on third down. The unit netted 384 yards.

Jones finished the game a relatively impressive 23-of-37 for 276 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. Both Rashad Ross (four receptions, 95 yards) and DeAndre Thompkins (6 grabs, 92 yards) almost eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Eli Rogers caught five balls for 49 yards. Running back Donnel Pumphery toiled for 52 yards on a dozen attempts, while Jhurell Pressley added 32 on 11 rushes.

Defensively, the newly-acquired Anthony Johnson registered one-and-a-half sacks late in the contest. Each Jameer Thurman, Rahim Moore Sr., and Matt Elam forced turnovers.

“We’re playing good team football and, ultimately, that’s what you have to do to win games,” Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton said. “We’re going to have a tough opponent next week in the L.A. Wildcats. But I do feel like, if we pack a good defense, which we will, to head across country, that we’re going to have a chance to continue to play Defenders football the way we play.”

Playing on Sunday for the first time this season against L.A., Hamilton made it known his team won’t be taking any breaks.

“We have an extra day to prepare,” Hamilton said. “And we’re going to do just that. I think, for a second, our guys thought that we’d have a ‘Victory Monday’ of sorts. That’s not happening. Our guys are excited to have the privilege to put in more work.”

The game against the winless Wildcats will kick off at 6 p.m. on FS1.

D.C. to defend home turf again, an early look at the Guardians

The DC Defenders hit the field. (Credit: XFL.com)

The D.C. Defenders (1-0, 3rd in the East Division) will welcome the New York Guardians (1-0, 1st in the East Division) onto Audi Field this weekend in the first clash between unbeatens in this XFL’s history.

While the Defenders showed up in all three facets to defeat the visiting Seattle Dragons, the New York Guardians tamed the Tampa Bay Vipers, 23-3, in what on the surface looked like a deconstruction of Marc Trestman’s offense.

New York quarterback Matt McGloin, he of 13 NFL appearances with the Oakland Raiders, needed only pedestrian statistics to steer the game against the Snakes. The Guardians caused three fumbles and picked off two Aaron Murray passes, holding the Vipers to a meager three points at MetLife Stadium Sunday afternoon.

In reality, McGloin’s one-yard sneak that broke the seal on the scoreboard a little over five minutes into the game was all that would have been needed. On the ensuing drive, Murray, the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in passing yards (13,166) and passing touchdowns (121), threw an interception from the Guardian 6-yard-line, putting to sleep a pristine scoring opportunity.

Leading a drive that lasted all of three plays to ring in the second quarter, McGloin directed his unit 57 yards forward, capping the expedient march with a 12-yard toss to Colby Pearson.

The Vipers’ frustrations continued soon after with a missed field goal, and the Guardians snatched away another Murray pass, allowing another scoring chance before the half concluded. Kicker Matt McCrane, who hit all three field goal attempts for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their 2018 season finale, connected from 49 yards out to give New York a 17-0 lead heading into the break.

Late in the third quarter, the Snakes wasted their best shot at crossing the Guardians’ goal-line, running for negative yardage and throwing two incompletions from five yards out. The Vipers settled for a field goal that did little help to climb out of the double-digit hole.

Much like the Defenders, who put an emphatic finishing touch on their victory with a defensive score, the Guardians scooped a fumble from Viper tight end Nick Truesdell and returned it home, all but ending the game.

Two Viper drives ended on downs in the red zone in the last seven minutes, the Guardians disallowed even a consolation score.

At first glance, the Guardians appear formidable. But statistics may prove that not to be the case.

It wasn’t that Jaime Elizondo’s offense was incapable, not between the 20s, anyway. While New York’s defense was opportunistic, it also allowed Tampa bay to move 394 total yards, the most of any attack in the opening weekend. The Vipers gained 150 of that on the ground, better than all but the St. Louis BattleHawks (191) in their first contest.

The Guardians stiffened in the red zone, allowing no conversions in four tries. If D.C. makes use of splash plays, such as it did Saturday with the trick play that tight end Khari Lee scored on in the third quarter and, later, the 31-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Ross, it won’t have to worry about struggling deep in opposing territory.

New York seemed more perplexed with shifty quarterback and USF product Quinton Flowers, who ran for 34 yards and tossed a 37-yard pass. Cardale Jones, in his own right mobile, picked up 28 yards with his feet and extended plays all afternoon. New York hit the quarterback sacked the quarterback five times Sunday, hitting him another eight. These totals compared only to Houston’s five sacks and 16 hits on Saturday.

D.C.’s Eli Rogers, who after one game sits with the second-most receiving yards in the East, will hope to follow Tampa Bay receiver Daniel Williams’ (9 grabs, 123 yards) lead against Jim Herrmann’s defense. Other than Ross, Jones might be able to find another receiving complement to Rogers.

“In terms of shutting [Tampa Bay] down, we didn’t,” Gilbride said after the Sunday’s game. “In terms of keeping them out of the endzone, we were terrific. You can’t play much better than that.”

Defensively, for the most part, the Guardians head coach may be right.

Gilbride’s rush offense, which with 44 yards produced the lowest output last week, will have to get off—err, on—the ground. The Guardians average drive lasted less than five plays and 23 yards. D.C. proved early, with drives of 13 and 12 plays that each went at least 50 yards, that it could creep down the field. New York was the only team in Week One that had no more than one drive that advanced that far.

On both sides of the ball, the Guardians had trouble on third down. The Vipers offense went 7-of-15 in third down situations, while McGloin and company’s 10% success rate tied Dallas for the worst of the weekend.

Actionnetwork.com projects the Defenders being three-point favorites when betting opens for Saturday’s game, starting at 2 p.m. on ABC.

XFL DC Defenders down Dragons in opening contest

Defenders QB Cardale Jones
Defenders QB Cardale Jones used all three phases to slay the Seattle Dragons. (Credit XFL.com)

The D.C. Defenders (1-0), led by former Ohio State standout passer Cardale Jones, used all three phases to—let me be the first to say it, slay—the Seattle Dragons (0-1), 31-19, at Audi Field in the nation’s capital.

Kicker Tyler Rausa, formerly a Boise State Bronco, pinned the “new” XFL’s first points onto the board with a 34-yard field goal over seven minutes into the opening quarter.

The son of St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” member and 16-year NFL vet Ricky Proehl, Austin Proehl reeled in a 14-yard pass from Memphis Express great Brandon Silvers for the Dragons’—and the XFL’s—first touchdown. After a failed one-point attempt, the scoreboard read 6-3.

Defender safety Rahim Moore Sr. hopped a Silvers pass nearly five minutes into the second quarter, but Jones and the D.C. offense couldn’t capitalize, punting after moving the ball only three yards further.

With 6:56 left in the half, Defender cornerback Elijah Campbell blew in from the left edge around a personal protector and batted a punt attempt from Seattle punter Brock Miller’s boot, then chased the loose football into the hands of linebacker Jonathan Celestin for a touchdown.

Within the second quarter’s final minute, Trey Williams took a checkdown toss from Silvers 13 yards for another Seattle touchdown, this time with a successful one-point conversion to give the Dragons a 13-9 lead. A botched kickoff, however, gave D.C. an opportunity to put a few more points on the board before the halftime.

“All kickoffs have to go beyond the 20-yard-line,” informed viewers when Ernesto Lacayo’s kick fell shy of the mark and Rashad Ross collected it.

The ball, as a rule, was placed at the Dragons’ 45-yard-line. All it took was an eight-yard scramble by Jones to put Rausa in position to pull the game within one, which he did with a 54-yarder that split the uprights.

Both tailback Jhurrell Pressley—a 14-yard off-tackle rush—and former Pittsburgh Steeler Eli Rogers—an over-the-shoulder 27-yard grab—made plays on the opening possession of the second half for the Defenders.

The play of the game, and maybe even the weekend, came next.

Jones snapped the ball from the shotgun and handed it off to the FBS’ all-time leader in rushing yardage, San Diego State product Donnel Pumphery, on what appeared to be a stretch play. The former fourth-round NFL Draft pick then flipped it to Rogers, who gave it back to Jones. The quarterback, making his first start since October of 2015, found tight end Khari Lee, who wheeled past two Dragon defensive backs for a score.

Down 19-13, it took Silvers and Proehl only three plays to connect for another touchdown, this time with the receiver pulling in pass and racing down the sideline for 57 yards.

Three series later, Jones found former Washington Redskin Rashad Ross deep on fourth down to tally what would end up being the game’s go-ahead score.

With 12 minutes left in the game, Silvers would target Proehl once more, who slipped breaking on his route. There to snag the ball was defensive back Bradley Sylve, who returned the ball 69 yards to the endzone, making the score 31-19.

The Dragons would drive to the Defenders’ 3-yard-line on the next possession, but a miscommunicated handoff would lead to another D.C. takeaway.

Seattle’s Silvers was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury with little over a minute left, and B.J. Daniels was unable to convert the following fourth-down play.

“There was just so many unknowns,” Hamilton said, not counting Jones, who finished 16-of-26 with 235 yards and two touchdowns, as one of them. “It was good for our guys to compete against another team and actually tackle people to the ground.”

Eli Rogers, whose mother passed away in the week leading to the game, caught six balls for 73 yards. On the other side, Proehl pulled in five receptions for 88 yards.

“We all love football,” Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton said, bringing to mind the league’s slogan. “We’re dying to have an opportunity to come together and enjoy something that’s been a favorite pastime for us for quite some time.”

“Lord knows, what would we be doing right now if we didn’t have football?” Rahim Moore Sr. said after the game.

“It was important for us to, of course go out and find a way to win the football game,” said Hamilton. “But I talked prior to the game about us having a desired identity. And now I think we have actual fingerprints.”