Week eight of the USFL kicked off this afternoon, with the Pittsburgh Maulers hosting the Houston Gamblers in the Canton heat. While both of these teams were the fourth seed in their respective divisions, the talent spread between is quite deep.
Heading into this game, Pittsburgh had lost two straight, most recently in a shootout with the Philadelphia Stars.
On the other hand, Curtis Johnson’s Gamblers lost a week ago, but had won four in a row prior to that. Let’s take a look at what happened in today’s game, as it was close from start to finish.
It was a great start to the game for the Pittsburgh Maulers. They swiftly marched down the field, led by Troy Williams and Isiah Hennie. After getting into the red zone, Williams ran it in himself – something we’ve seen him do plenty of this USFL season.
On the other hand, Houston struggled to get into much of a rhythm early. Pittsburgh’s defense stifled them throughout the first quarter, and we went into the second with a 7-0 ball game.
The Maulers drives were long, and efficient, to begin this game. They took up quite a bit of time, getting deep into Houston territory again. This time, an excellent defensive play by Nick Grant resulted in Pittsburgh settling for three.
Throughout the second quarter, it was most of the same story. Houston was stuck in a rut, unable to move the ball much at all. Interestingly enough, Montell Cozart got into the game for a short time, but made a minimal impact.
Pittsburgh’s next drive went for 68 yards on 13 plays, but once again the team couldn’t punch it in the end zone. Chris Blewitt knocked through a 54 yard kick, and Pittsburgh went up 13-0.
Right before halftime, there was a crucial play that would prove to be pivotal in the game’s final outcome. On 4th and 1 inside Maulers territory, Curtis Johnson opted to go for it. Mark Thompson broke loose for a touchdown, and just like that it was 13-6 heading into the half.
IN MARK WE TRUST! That's a league leading 12 touchdowns for @InMarkWeTrust this season 😤
Despite the Pittsburgh Maulers dominating two quarters, it was a seven point game at the break.
The large majority of this quarter was pretty uneventful. Both teams traded punts often, with the defenses getting the best of each other’s offenses.
Towards the end of the period, Pittsburgh put together another long possession. However, self-inflicted wounds would continue to haunt the team. Matt Seybert scored a touchdown, but it was called back for a penalty. The Maulers would settle for a field goal, and looking at the final score – this drive might have been the deciding factor.
With just fifteen minutes left to play, Houston trailed 16-6, but seemed to have a bit of life.
This time around, the Houston Gamblers would finish a fourth quarter comeback. After failing to do so a week ago in Memphis, a strong performance from the offense would ultimately push them over the edge.
It all began with the brilliance of Kenji Bahar, who dropped an absolute dime to Keke Chism in the back of the end zone. Chism got both feet down in bounds, to make it a 16-13 affair.
That would turn out to be the last breath for the Pittsburgh Maulers. On Houston’s next drive, Mark Thompson put on a show, saving his best for last. He broke loose for a 33 yard touchdown, which put the Gamblers in front by one point.
With just a few minutes left, the Maulers would have a chance. Unfortunately, it would be a brutal ending. Chris Blewitt had a chance to go ahead with two minutes left, but missed a 41 yard field goal.
The Houston Gamblers would ultimately hold on for the win, 20-19 over the Pittsburgh Maulers.
RBMark Thompson: Simply put, when is Mark Thompson not a standout playmaker? On just 14 carries he racked up 98 yards and two scores, on 7YPC. He now has 13 rushing touchdowns, in just six weeks of action. Without Thompson’s clutch gene, odds are Houston would’ve lost this one.
QBKenji Bahar: It wasn’t an eye-popping game for Bahar today, but he was quite effective. He finished the game with 146 yards, averaging 7.3YPA and tossing a touchdown that sparked the comeback.
SManny Bunch: It’s been one heck of a season for Manny Bunch, who continues to provide the defense with his outstanding playmaking abilities week in and week out. With Donald Rutledge out of the lineup today, Bunch stepped up: racking up 10 tackles, which led the team.
DBJeremiah Johnson: It was another impressive outing for Jeremiah Johnson, who had seven tackles and some excellent coverage in the secondary.
Defense coming alive!! Big 3rd down sack by @esta_guapo 😎
LBIsaiah Chambers: One of the most underrated linebackers in the USFL is Isaiah Chambers. He had three tackles and two sacks today, one of which resulted in a crucial stop in the fourth quarter. The energy he brings to Houston and their defense is unmatched.
QBTroy Williams: Despite the loss, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have been in a position to win without the efforts of Troy Williams. He threw for 214 yards, averaging 8.2YPA. He added 36 yards and a score on the ground as well. Unfortunately, the team simply hasn’t been able to get it done in crunch time.
We asked Houston Gamblers HC Curtis Johnson about the decision to go for it on 4th and 1 late in the second quarter. It was a bold call, especially since they could’ve taken the three points. His answer is not what you would expect:
Right before the second half, the @USFLGamblers rolled the dice and went for it on 4th and 1 – and it paid off with an @InMarkWeTrust touchdown.
We asked Ray Horton about the adjustments that have to be made moving forward to close out games:
Q:“Coach, the last couple of weeks we’ve seen Pittsburgh play well through three quarters, but things haven’t gone your way in the fourth. What do you do moving forward to change this?”
A:“We look at everything. How we practice, how we hydrate, how we eat, how we walk through. For us to come into this game, and to have all (but one) be very close, in the fourth quarter is tough. When I was with the Dallas Cowboys we went 1-15 one year, and we lost nine of ten games in the fourth quarter. We just didn’t know how to win. It is a process. Two years later, we were super bowl Champions. So, is this team close? Yeah. They don’t want to hear that, they want to win. We evaluate everything, and are we getting better? Absolutely. But we’ve got to get even better.”
The Houston Gamblers desperately needed this win, and found a way to get the job done on the road. With a 5-3 record, it gives them the opportunity to move back into second place, if Memphis and New Orleans can’t win tomorrow.
Curtis Johnson has to continue to lean into Mark Thompson, especially as the season comes to a close. Thompson has been their “closer”, and led the way today to get Houston back in the win column.
In contrast, Ray Horton has a lot to figure out for his Pittsburgh Maulers. Every single week (except Memphis) they’re in a position to win the game down the stretch, but fail to get the job done. Now at 2-6, they risk missing the playoffs all together if they can’t find a way to win the next two.
What are your thoughts on this USFL matchup between the Houston Gamblers and Pittsburgh Maulers? Which USFL players impressed the most? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!