By Scott Adamson
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When Birmingham Iron quarterback Luis Perez said, “Defense wins championships” after his squad’s 26-0 thrashing of Memphis today, he wasn’t just repeating a cliché.
This team might truly be title worthy in the Alliance of American Football’s inaugural season.
Stopping the run and pass with equal effectiveness, the defensive unit overwhelmed the visitors from Tennessee for the better part of four quarters in a contest that was never really in doubt.
Throw in four Nick Novak field goals and two fourth quarter touchdown scampers by Trent Richardson, and the hosts had more than enough offense to give most of the 17,039 fans at Legion Field a happy ending.
Perez was 19-33-0 passing for 252 yards, and said the play of the defense gave him a high level of comfort.
“Just an unbelievable job by our defense,” said Perez, who showed the makings of a big-time AAF quarterback. “They got the shutout, rushed the passer, tipped balls … we’re very fortunate to have a defense like that.
“It did have a little to do with our approach to the game. Our plan was to pound it down their throat, partly because of our defense.”
Novak’s first three scores came in the first half, and thanks to the heavy hitting by the “D,” it seemed as though they would be enough.
But a touchdown would be helpful in sealing the deal, and Richardson got one when he capped off a five-play, 55-yard march with 13:31 to play.
The 2-point conversion – the only option following a TD – made it 17-0.
Novak added a 31-yard field goal 4:17 from the finish and Richardson found the end zone again with 1:55 on the fourth quarter clock to put the final touches on a blowout.
The Iron netted 327 yards, and although only 86 came on the ground, they were enough to wear the Express down.
Mike Singletary’s team, on the other hand, closed with just 202 yards and were victimized by two interceptions and a fumble.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg hit 10 or 23 passes for 87 yards and a pick.
“I saw that Christian has to get better,” Singletary said. “He has to settle down and he has to get better. Right now we’ll just get out of here, watch the film and lick our wounds.”
Birmingham boss Tim Lewis had little to complain about.
Outside linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi was in on seven tackles and had two sacks, while Beniquez Brown also had seven takedowns and two tackles for loss.
For a coach whose experience is on the defensive side of the ball, the outcome was near perfection.
“That was fantastic,” Lewis said. “We tried to limit their explosive plays on defense and did a good job. Our third down defense was fantastic and I can’t say enough about our kicker and punter (Colton Schmidt, who averaged 44 yards).
“Defensively we took the ball away a couple of times and made a couple of fourth down stops, and I consider those takeaways.”
Perez put up 59 passing yards on the Iron’s first possession, taking his team down to the Memphis 11 before the drive stalled. Novak made sure the hosts came away with points, however, when he booted a 29 yard field goal to make it 3-0 at 9:44 of the first quarter.
Those were the only points of the opening frame, but Birmingham moved inside the Express 10 early in the second quarter to set up a first-and-goal situation at the 9. Memphis held, however, and again it was Novak called on to kick.
This time the Maryland product drilled a field goal from 28 yards out to make it 6-0 with 10:36 left until halftime.
Novak was at it again 3:21 before the break, hitting straight and true from 47 yards away. That made the sidewinder 3-for-3, and the Iron was on top, 9-0.
After a brisk first half – it lasted roughly 70 minutes in real time – Birmingham was dominating statistically.
The home team had amassed 198 yards in total offense while limiting Memphis to just 65 – and only 10 through the air.
But three field goals hardly seemed like a safe cushion, and the Iron had 30 more minutes to maintain the story line while the Express had a half hour to flip the script.
Ultimately, 17 fourth quarter points by Birmingham closed the book on a successful opening week.
The Iron (1-0) hosts Salt Lake next Saturday, while Memphis (0-1) welcomes Arizona to the Liberty Bowl.
“(Defensive coordinator) Rick Minter worked very hard putting together a plan, and I think all our coaches did a good job,” Lewis said. “But we have a nice product.
“I think we picked the right 52 (players).”