The New York Guardians are faced with a test on the road, which coincides with a professional football homecoming in the Gateway City.
On the professional football scene, the only must-win in February often comes in the form of the NFL’s “Big Game”. The New York Guardians, however, may very well face such a scenario in just their third week of existence.
With the XFL’s third week underway, the Guardians (1-1) face a major Sunday challenge on the road against the St. Louis BattleHawks (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). New York enters facing adversity for the first time in franchise history. The good vibes of their opening weekend win over the Tampa Bay Vipers were more or less eliminated in the nation’s capital. A matchup against the DC Defenders placed the Guardians on the wrong side of the rebooted XFL’s first shutout, falling 27-0 at Audi Field.
The reeling is mostly showcased through offensive futility. New York scored touchdowns on two of their first trio of possessions against Tampa Bay at MetLife Stadium, but they have failed to visit the end zone on their last 18 drives (including a set of kneel-downs that ended the opening win).
The Guardians spent the week regrouping at their practice facility of Superdome Sports in Waldwick, NJ. Head coach Kevin Gilbride is confident his team will be able to get it together in the Gateway City.
“I think we’re ready to I think we’ve recovered. Everybody’s moved on,” Gilbride told ESNY. “If [last week] is in anybody’s mind, it’s [the media’s].”
His players seemed to echo Gilbride’s theme of leaving the past in the past and focusing on the opportunity ahead.
“This is where you really find out who you are,” linebacker Bunmi Rotimi Jr. said. “This is the type of stuff that really defines your character, how you respond to the adversity from last week. I’ve got complete faith that we’re going to be able to do it.”
Gilbride opted to keep his message to the team private, but he believes they got the message.
“We addressed what needed to be said, how things need to be handled. Everything was squared away on Monday.”
At the center of the disaster against the Defenders was Matt McGloin. The quarterback became an infamous XFL headline in bizarre fashion, going viral for a halftime interview with ESPN/ABC’s Dianna Russini. With XFL sideline reporters offering unprecedented access on the sidelines, McGloin’s comments of a “need to change the entire gameplan” were seen by some as a shot at his team. The coverage on McGloin and his struggles was labeled a game-changer in sports coverage by media analysts, showcasing how the XFL can create storylines in their games.
After going 8-of-19 for 44 yards and two interceptions, McGloin was pulled for Marquise Williams in the second half. Some felt that the mobile Williams could supplant McGloin for the St. Louis trip, but the fact that there are no changes to the team depth chart confirms that the Penn State alum will continue to hold the starting job.
“I just need to continue to work hard, continue to try to be a leader, and play the quarterback position the way I know how,” McGloin said. “Continue to watch film, work hard each and every day and embrace the grind. At the end of the day, (I have to) play better.”
McGloin took responsibility for what happened in Washington before turning the focus over to the challenge in St. Louis. The BattleHawks (1-1) are second in the league in yards allowed and are letting up only 68 rushing yards per game (XFL-best).
“They’re an impressive football team,” McGloin said. “They play with a lot of heart, they’re a team that plays four quarters. So we’re going to play the best game we possibly can play. We’ll be ready to play a four-quarter football game.”
Adding to the Guardians’ challenge is Sunday’s historic occasion. Not only are they the opponent for the BattleHawks’ inaugural home game, but they’re the supposed sacrificial lamb for the return of professional football to The STL.
The BattleHawks’ arrival will be the first professional football game held in the city since the final stand of the St. Louis Rams in December 2015 before they absconded to Los Angeles. The Rams’ former stomping grounds, The Dome at America’s Center, have been dormant since, save for the occasional concert or religious conference. An estimated 28,000 fans are expected to be on hand for its reopening this weekend.
The new team has given fans reasons to be excited. St. Louis fell in Houston last week, but played the undefeated Roughnecks to a tight 28-24 decision. The Battlehawks won their opener in come-from-behind fashion, topping the Dallas Renegades 15-9 at Globe Life Park in Arlington.
McGloin knows how loud The Dome can get. He was a backup for the Oakland Raiders in their final visit to St. Louis in 2014, playing witness to a 52-0 Rams victory.
“Obviously, they had an incredible fanbase when the Rams were there, so there’s no doubt they’re going to be loud, excited for their home opener. There will be some passionate people that haven’t had football. We’ve been working on a lot of things to make sure we can handle that atmosphere on Sunday.”
Gilbride and McGloin concurred that the team had been working on silent counts during the week in preparation for the anticipated volume. The head coach has had NFL experiences at The Dome, but remarked that his memories “won’t have anything to do with what happens on Sunday.”
“(St. Louis) has fallen behind in both of their games and has never given up,” Gilbride observed. “They came back and won one against a team everybody thought was going to be one of the best in the league in Dallas and then they came barely short against Houston, who is playing the best out of anybody. We know we’ve got our hands full. They’re not going to give us anything.”
Among the BattleHawks’ attractions are quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and punter Marquette King. The latter made a name for himself as one of the NFL’s more entertaining specialists. Ta’amu didn’t make the NFL’s 2019 regular season, but has been one of the XFL’s more intriguing quarterbacks. He was responsible for all four BattleHawk touchdowns in the visit to Houston, tallying 316 yards of offense in the process.
“When you have a guy that can run, it brings a new facet to the game,” linebacker Ben Heeney said. “You’re always worried about the quarterback draw, stuff like that. If he doesn’t see a ball downfield, he can always just scramble. It adds a whole new element, adding a guy who’s looking to run versus a guy who’s only looking to pass. That’s a big thing.”
In the grand scheme of things, Sunday could be one of the most valuable games on the XFL schedule. Both sitting at 1-1, the Guardians and BattleHawks are chasing the Defenders for East Division supremacy. They’re each tied for the second East playoff slot, but St. Louis owns the current tiebreaker of touchdown differential.
Ever the long-term planner, McGloin noted that each of the Guardians’ first three games has come against conference competition. A big win on the road could help alleviate the pain stemming from DC and put them in control of their own destiny.
“It’s exciting for us. It’s a big game for us in our division. I’m not sure if anybody else has opened up with three teams in their own division,” McGloin said. “It’s a good opportunity for us.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags