The Houston Gamblers saw themselves on the wrong side of the highest-scoring game of the season as they fell to the Birmingham Stallions 33-28.
Houston had a disastrous start to the game with a pick-six thrown by quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Gamblers were able to bounce back on the next drive as they were able to get a field goal to only be down by four. Many didn’t see this coming, but cornerback Will Likely has become the surprise of the season as he picked off J’Mar Smith and returned it 62 yards for the touchdown to give Houston a 9-7 lead. Birmingham closed out the quarter with a field goal to lead 10-9 after the first quarter.
The Gamblers’ offense picked up some momentum as they got in the end zone early in the second quarter when Thorson connected with Isaiah Zuber for a 25-yard touchdown pass to regain the lead 15-10. After Birmingham was forced to punt, Thorson threw his second interception of the game that resulted in a Stallions field goal. Houston went three and out, but Likely again created a turnover with a forced fumble recovered by Jamar Summers at the Stallions’ 10-yard line. Thorson was replaced by Kenji Bahar at quarterback, but nothing came of it resulting in a field goal to take an 18-13 lead heading into halftime.
For the second straight week, the Houston defense allowed zero first-half touchdowns but didn’t play as well in the second half. Birmingham scored touchdowns in three straight drives to start the half including a 34-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Osirus Mitchell, a three-yard rushing touchdown from CJ Marable, and a 64-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Marlon Williams.
Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin ran with Bahar at quarterback for most of the third quarter, but went three and out on the first drive and injured his hand on the second drive knocking him out of the game. Thorson finished the drive with a field goal as they headed into the fourth quarter down 26-21. Down 33-21 in the fourth quarter, Thorson threw a beautiful 44-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Simmons as they were down 33-28. Houston had a decent drive going with under two minutes that ended with a third Thorson interception to close out the game.
Birmingham goes into week three at 2-0 to start the season. Houston found themselves with their first loss of the season as they sit at a 1-1 record for the year. While more points were put on the board, similar issues from last week were exposed to the Gamblers.
Defense Struggles Again in Second Half
Zero touchdowns allowed in the first half of both games for the Gamblers. The second half has been a whole different story. Corners Jamar Summers and Ryan White allowed big touchdown pass plays in the second half that cost them the game. Whether that’s on miscommunication from the safeties or the defensive call, they struggled against big plays.
The front seven also had their shares of struggles stopping the run. Multiple times, the Stallions were able to break off ten or more yard runs throughout the game. Birmingham combined for 169 rushing yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. What was supposed to be a strength to the team ended up hurting them especially late in the game when they were trying to get the offense back on the field.
Should it all be blamed on the defense? Honestly, no. The biggest contributor to the second-half struggles has been Houston has lost the time of possession in both games and has lost it by a significant amount. Houston’s offense has to do a better job of putting the defense in better positions instead of getting fatigued at the end of the game.
Mark Thompson Still Isn’t Involved Enough
After two weeks, it has become apparent that Mark Thompson is the most important piece to the offense. Thompson is currently the USFL’s leading rusher with 164 yards on the ground after producing 93 yards rushing in the loss. Whether it is his quick feet or his breakaway speed potential on the outside, Thompson makes or breaks this offense.
One of the major problems with Houston’s offense is Thompson is not getting enough touches. They have not involved him in the passing game at all which seems odd. Screen passes are usually a good play to use when teams are trying to open up the passing game. With Thorson struggling, Thompson should get some catches to help out.
It’s clear that the passing game isn’t going to be enough for the offense. As much as Sumlin would love to throw the ball around, Thompson needs to be the focal point of the offense. Teams will be more prepared to put more defenders in the box so it should open up the screen pass to get the ball to Thompson.
Clayton Thorson Underwhelms Once Again
It’s safe to say that when a quarterback throws three interceptions in a game, there’s a good chance a loss is probably on the way. Thorson once again had a very up and down game throwing the football. At times, he was able to throw some pretty passes down the field for two scores. A good amount of them though saw more inaccurate and overthrows that led to three picks.
Houston fans got a glimpse of Kenji Bahar for about a quarter, but he wasn’t able to help much. Bahar threw just as many inaccurate passes as Thorson. Playcalling with Bahar in the game was predictable as well with read-option runs being called with him with minimum success. Sumlin was hoping that Bahar would spark the offense before his injury, but that did not happen.
Thorson proved to be the better option at quarterback, but more needs to occur with the offense. Being one of the first quarterbacks drafted, Houston is expecting more out of their starter. Another rocky start like the one against Birmingham may result in the Gamblers looking elsewhere at quarterback.