After nearly surrendering a 17-0 halftime lead, the Houston Gamblers’ defense comes up big beating the Michigan Panthers 17-12 in the season opener.
It certainly wasn’t the prettiest way to win a game, but does that matter? All that matters is that the team finds a way to win the game. Houston found a way to win by leaning on their strong defense to get the job done.
The story of the game was nine fumbles by the Michigan Panthers with both their quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Paxton Lynch contributing to five of those as they each lost one ball. Lynch also added an interception in the loss. It was sloppy football played by the Panthers, but the same could be said about Houston.
The Gamblers’ offense only produced 174 total yards of offense with most of it coming in the first half. One positive for the offense is they turned the ball over one time, but they relied on the passing game too much in the second half instead of getting the ball to the hot hand in running back Mark Thompson.
Houston goes to 1-0 to start the season as they prepare for a Saturday night showdown with another 1-0 team in the Birmingham Stallions. Despite it not being a pretty game for the team, Houston can take a lot away from this game and how they can build on this win.
Three Takeaways for Houston
The Houston Hitmen Rise
The front seven of Houston seemed to have their way with Michigan in the first half. They provided a ton of pressure on the quarterback whether it was Patterson or Lynch in the backfield. Ahmad Gooden had no trouble with two sacks and was credited with three forced fumbles. Safe to say he was tough to block for the Panthers’ offensive line. Chris Odom made the most clutch play of the game with a late-game sack on Patterson on the final drive of the game that led to a long fourth-down conversion that didn’t happen.
A lot of love needs to go to the linebacking core with Reggie Northrup and Donald Payne being the stars of the defense. Northrup was all over the field with 11 tackles and picked up a fumble that was returned 87 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Payne found a way to always find the ball carrier recording 19 tackles and one pass deflection.
Many knew the value that Jamar Summers brought to the picture in the secondary with his coverage skills and sure tackling. Micah Abernathy was someone in the secondary who came up big in the game with four tackles. A name that emerged was Will Likely who was able to record an interception in the second quarter and a pass deflection in the win proving that he’s more than just a “kick returner”.
Mark Thompson Needs the Ball More
Dalyn Dawkins got a lot of attention at running back and was seen as someone who would be the leading back. Mark Thompson emerged as the top back as he was able to hammer his way through the Panthers’ defense. Thompson’s power and ability to break the tackle made him a key force for an offense that struggled to throw the football.
While most of his yards came in the second half, Thompson was able to record 71 yards on 13 carries with his longest run being 17 yards. The biggest surprise was how underutilized he was in the second half of the game as Thorson was trying to establish the passing game, but that didn’t happen.
Houston’s game plan for Saturday against Birmingham has to shift the focus to giving Thompson more touches. He proved his value on Sunday and needs to be more involved in the offense. Rotating Dawkins in the running game would also help the offense if they want to be successful. Thorson needs some help this Saturday and a good running game is a way to go.
Thorson Wasn’t Perfect But Had Some Good Moments
Houston was expected to have a wide-open offense with motions and passing that would give flashbacks from the Gamblers of the ’80s. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. Thorson only threw for 73 yards and backup quarterback Kenji Bahar got one pass that was completed for 81 yards. If their defense wasn’t special, that would be a recipe for disaster.
Thorson missed on some of his throws with overthrows and off-target passes. When he was on point, fans could see why he was picked as the Gamblers’ number one quarterback. His lone touchdown pass of the game was a perfect pass off his back foot connecting with Isaiah Zuber for the score.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin spoke at halftime about wanting to get the passing game going. Thorson had some good moments, but not enough to give fans reassurance that they can succeed the rest of the season. Granted, it’s only the first game, but all signs seem to point that Houston might need to reshift their offensive efforts to the running game to help open up the passing game.
The offense has time to refocus and figure out how they can be more efficient. Houston’s positive to that point is they have the head coach to solve the issue and get them going. When Thompson has the ball in his hands, he can break some tackles. Something Houston should consider is letting Thompson and Dawkins be more involved in the offense. That’s always a sure easy way to give Thorson confidence and gain easy yards.
Houston’s defense in the second half allowed a ton of yards and did let them score two touchdowns, but they stopped them twice on two-point conversions. Not to them they held them out of the end zone on the final possession of the game. Overall, the Gamblers proved to have one of the top defenses in the league and could make the argument the front seven is particularly strong in pressuring the quarterback.
Again, not a perfect game and not a pretty win. The good news for Houston is the USFL doesn’t measure wins and losses on how “pretty” they play. They measure whoever scores more points at the end of the game. Houston almost let Michigan win the game after a 17-0 lead at halftime, but the “bend don’t break” mentality lived within the Gamblers’ roster. For that, they aced their first big test of the season.
Houston Gamblers Box Score
Offense: 23:11 time of possession, 174 total yards, 3.9 yards per play, two touchdowns, 1 interception
Defense: 363 yards allowed, 3 sacks, 2 fumbles lost, 1 interception, 1 touchdown
Passing: Clayton Thorson, 9/17 73 yards 52.9 completion percentage 1 touchdown 1 interception 96.7 QBR
Kenji Bahar, 1/1 8 yards 167.2 QBR
Rushing: Mark Thompson, 13 carries 71 yards 5.5 average 17 long
Dalyn Dawkins, 10 carries 26 yards 2.6 average 11 long
Clayton Thorson, 2 carries 4 yards 2 average 3 long
Receiving: JoJo Ward, 7 catches 48 yards 6.9 average 10 long
Isaiah Zuber, 2 catches 34 yards 17 average 1 touchdown 22 long
Anthony Ratliff-Williams, 1 catch -1 yards -1 average -1 long
Top Defenders: Donald Payne, 19 tackles 1 pass deflection
Reggie Northrup, 11 tackles 1 forced fumble 1 fumble recovery 1 touchdown
Ahmad Gooden, 9 tackles 2 sacks 3 forced fumbles
Chris Odom, 3 tackles 1 sack 1 tackle for loss
Will Likely, 1 tackle 1 pass deflection 1 interception
Kicking: Nick Vogel, 1/2 field goals 37 long 3 points
Punting: Andrew Galitz, 6 punts 36.8 average yards 2 inside the 20 yard line 43 long