Week seven in the USFL South is set up to be wild. The streaking Memphis Showboats will host the red hot Houston Gamblers, in a matchup that could define the playoff race.
Todd Haley’s Memphis Showboats have looked like a completely different team over the past few weeks. After starting with an 0-3 record, the team has gotten back to the .500 mark, most recently dominating the Pittsburgh Maulers in a 22-0 shutout.
On the other hand, Curtis Johnson and the Houston Gamblers have impressed across the board. They’ve been playing excellent football, winning four straight as they look to secure a USFL playoff berth.
Let’s take a look at the key factors ahead of this game, and what we can expect from both organizations.
Prior USFL Meeting
When these two teams met in week three, it was Memphis’ last loss of the season. In fact, this game marked the beginning of a new era for the Showboats. Cole Kelley made his first start, and played quite well despite the final score.
The last time the @USFLShowboats and @USFLGamblers faced off, Ryan McDaniel made everyone's jaws drop with this ridiculous catch for a score.
Expecting plenty of fireworks from Memphis & Houston on Sunday. Seven straight wins between both teams. #USFLpic.twitter.com/ysQ9pqBbmo
— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) May 26, 2023
This game came down to the wire, with Houston pulling out a 30-26 victory in the final seconds. Kenji Bahar masterfully marched the team down the field as the game came to an end, eventually finding a wide open Justin Hall for the go-ahead score.
BAHAR TO HALL FOR THE TOUCHDOWN! 🔥
GAMBLERS TAKE THE LEAD!!!! pic.twitter.com/bQIIJzmQbf
— Houston Gamblers (@USFLGamblers) April 30, 2023
Considering how competitive things were between these two teams the last time they played, fans can certainly expect a similar story this time around.
Kenji Bahar has been a revelation for Houston this season. He’s shown so much growth since coming into the league a season ago. Bahar being back in the lineup – and healthy – is the best case scenario for this Gamblers team.
This is the Kenji Bahar we've been waiting to see in the #USFL this season.
Drops a dime to Justin Hall for the TD, and just like that we're tied up at half time. If @KBahar11 can consistently sling it as he did on that final drive, look out.pic.twitter.com/0GK33T2Ine
— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) April 22, 2023
Something to watch is Kenji’s awareness and mobility in the pocket, as he’s improved in that specific area drastically. His confidence is peaking, which is perfect timing for the Gamblers. While he didn’t play a perfect game a week ago, Bahar has been leveling up his game consistently throughout the season – limiting turnovers efficiently.
How about Cole Kelley? He’s been the perfect game manager for Todd Haley’s system. Brady White clearly wasn’t the right fit. Kelley is a bigger bodied quarterback, who’s got a cannon for an arm – and finds a way to make something out of nothing.
Let's take a look at some of @ColeKelley10's best throws of the day 😤 pic.twitter.com/jGFYDjrb0o
— Memphis Showboats (@USFLShowboats) May 14, 2023
Even though Cole might not dazzle with his legs (such as Alex McGough), he can do enough to keep plays alive. Additionally, he’s already seen success against this Houston secondary, tossing multiple touchdowns in week three.
With what’s on the line this weekend, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both quarterbacks playing at an extremely high level.
Beginning with the Memphis Showboats, this team has plenty of talent offensively. Juwan Washington and Kerrith Whyte have both stepped up in Alex Collins’ absence, which is something that the team desperately needed.
That's a 30-yard run from @JWashFrFr! 💨
🎥: @USANetwork pic.twitter.com/yhhjJj8GSP
— Memphis Showboats (@USFLShowboats) May 20, 2023
Cole Kelley has multiple targets to find. Derrick Dillon, Ryan McDaniel, Vinny Papale, newly-signed Cheyenne O’Grady – the list goes on. As long as the offensive line is giving Cole time to throw, this offense is capable of doing quite a bit of damage.
WOW. Derrick Dillon just took a short kick 109 yards to the HOUSE! What an unbelievable way to end the first half for the @USFLShowboats. @DerrickDillon4 is that guy. #USFL | @USFLNewsroompic.twitter.com/J31S696MjU
— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) May 20, 2023
Derrick Dillon, in particular, has to get some love. He’s been doing it all for Memphis this season, and got quite a bit of well deserved press after a 109 yard return against the Maulers.
Houston’s no sleeper, either. Mark Thompson has tore it up in the USFL since returning from injury in week three. He’s got nine rushing touchdowns in just four games, which is remarkable.
Mark Thompson is unstoppable. His first rushing touchdown of the day puts him at nine in the #USFL this season.
The crazy part: he's done this in just four weeks. Darius Victor led the league with nine rushing TD's last season…in 10 games. Unreal. pic.twitter.com/UQXSu86lta
— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) May 21, 2023
Justin Hall still leads all WR’s in receiving yards, dicing up opposing defenses every single week. Between Hall, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, and Josh Pederson, the Gamblers’ “big three” is tough to slow down. If Kenji Bahar can find his rhythm early, expect Hall and Ratliff-Williams to have a big outing.
If you told me that the Memphis Showboats had the “best defense in the USFL” a few weeks ago, I’d think you were crazy. However, over the past three weeks, this unit has been playing like it.
They’ve allowed only 20 points across the last three games, giving up less than 7 PPG. Kyree Woods has been a leader for this team, being the highest graded PFF player through six weeks. On top of that, he’s recorded an interception in two consecutive weeks.
Kyree Woods is not getting nearly enough attention for the remarkable season he's having in the #USFL.
The @USFLShowboats safety is the highest PFF graded player in the entire league (92.3). His play, especially the last few weeks, has been outstanding.pic.twitter.com/0CRxg0yvGu
— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) May 25, 2023
Up front, Memphis has consistently generated pressure, which is why they’ve seen so much success. Since Jeff McCulloch’s fumble six against Michigan a few weeks ago, the Showboats have been showing out defensively on essentially every drive.
Meanwhile, the Houston Gamblers’ defense is no joke, either. They put the clamps on the New Jersey Generals in week six, not allowing a single touchdown until the final few minutes.
PICKED! 🔥 Johnson with the read! pic.twitter.com/4a89o2y2uq
— Houston Gamblers (@USFLGamblers) May 21, 2023
Jeremiah Johnson, Elijah Jones, Manny Bunch, etc. make up a dangerous secondary. They’re constantly flying around, making quarterbacks pay often for throwing in their direction. It would not be surprising to see this unit generate at least a couple of turnovers this weekend.
Houston Gamblers | Curtis Johnson: Anyone who has closely watched what Curtis Johnson has done in Houston should be quite impressed. Despite losing All-USFL caliber players in the offseason, Houston has stabilized the ship under Curtis’ leadership. With a league-best four game winning streak, the Gamblers are poised to roll into the postseason if all goes well.
Memphis Showboats | Todd Haley: Well, Todd Haley has done a complete 180 since beginning the season. After a couple of embarrassing weeks early, he’s effectively adjusted the attitude in Memphis. Switching to Cole Kelley was certainly the right move. A lot is on the line for Haley this week, as he can’t afford to lose to Johnson and the Gamblers twice.
To be completely honest, this might be the first true 50/50 game we’ve seen this season. Both teams have streaks of three or four wins in a row. Since the last time they’ve played each other, neither has shown any signs of slowing down.
Who's going off on Sunday? 🎲🤩 pic.twitter.com/t5ztHYMGnV
— USFL (@USFL) May 25, 2023
If Memphis’ defense can play at the level that they have the past couple of weeks, it feels like the Showboats could be the slight favorites. With that being said, the Houston Gamblers are 4-2 for a reason. They’re playing complete football. Buckle up folks, we’re in for a ride on Sunday afternoon.
The two will play this Sunday, at 2:30pm ET on USA Network.
What are your thoughts on this upcoming USFL matchup between the Memphis Showboats and Houston Gamblers? Which USFL players do you expect to make an impact? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!