By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Down nine points heading into the final quarter, the Tampa Bay Bandits took advantage of a blocked punt for a score, and quarterback Jordan Ta’amu drove his team 48 yards on the final drive, setting up an Anthony Cioffi 46-yard field goal for a 27-26 win over the Houston Gamblers on Saturday.
"I thought we had a very good week of practice," Haley said. "The game didn’t go by any means how we wanted it to go at times, especially early. But the guys pulled together."
The victory spoiled an impressive night for Houston running back Mark Thompson. The University of Florida product rumbled for a season-high 147 rushing yards on 24 carries — tops in the USFL this season.
Thompson’s total included a USFL-best 55-yard run for a score, helping stake the Gamblers to a 26-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Thompson leads the USFL with 300 rushing yards through three games.
At 6-2 and 235 pounds, Thompson was tough for the Bandits to bring down, but he also possesses quick feet and instincts to make tacklers miss in space.
Thompson paired nicely with the deep passing of Houston quarterback Clayton Thorson, who finished 15-for-24 passing for 240 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. Thorson completed passes to 10 different receivers.
"He’s a big guy," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said about Thompson. "He’s powerful, and he's a little faster than guys think he is. He’s getting in shape. Three weeks ago, I don’t know if he would’ve scored on that long one. … He’s got good patience and good power."
However, the play of the game occurred with 12:30 left. Punting from their own 39-yard line, Houston punter Andrew Galitz mishandled the snap and had his punt blocked by Tampa Bay defensive back Quenton Meeks.
Vinny Papale came up with the loose ball for the Bandits, recovering it at Houston’s 4-yard line. Three plays later, Ta’amu scrambled five yards for a touchdown, cutting Houston’s advantage to 26-24 early in the fourth quarter and setting up Rousa’s theatrics at the end of the game.
Haley credited special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. for the blocked punt, saying it was even more impressive because his punt block unit only had 10 guys on the field.
Ta’amu finished 21-for-36 for 255 yards, with a touchdown pass and an interception. His favorite target was Derrick Dillon, who totaled six receptions for 124 yards and a score.
With the win, Bandits improved to 2-1 on the year, while the Gamblers dropped to 1-2.
Tampa Bay took control of the game early on a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive after the opening kick. The big play was Ta’amu connecting with Dillon on a deep out, with the crafty receiver making three defenders miss and scampering up the sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
After the score, the Gamblers reeled off 17 unanswered points to regain control of the game. On Houston’s first drive, Nick Vogel striped a 46-yard field goal.
After forcing the Bandits to punt, the Gamblers took the lead on a weird play. Anthony Ratliff-Williams shook loose behind Tampa Bay’s defense for a big gain, but had the ball stripped by safety Anthony Cioffi.
However, the ball bounced right back up into Ratliff-Williams’ hands and he secured it in the end zone for a touchdown, giving the Gamblers a 10-7 lead midway through the first quarter.
Thompson broke the game open on a 55-yard burst up the middle for a score, sidestepping a defender at the line of scrimmage and running untouched up the left sideline.
Haley gives game ball to daughter
Haley held the game ball after his team’s big win, given to the head coach by his players as a gift for his daughter.
Haley’s daughter, Peyton Caroline Haley, graduated with honors from the University of Florida. Instead of attending his daughter’s graduation ceremony, Haley chose to coach his team to a win over the Gamblers on Saturday.
"It’s one of my most special moments," Haley said. "I’ve been in a lot of big games. I told her I’d skip the game if you want me to, and she told me just win the game and that will be good enough for me."
Dillon shows out
Entering Saturday’s contest, Dillon had just one catch for 11 yards on two targets. But all of that changed against Houston, as he finished with six catches for 124 receiving yards on six targets.
Dillon’s numbers could have been even better, as he had a 50-yard touchdown called back due to a holding penalty. The LSU product just shrugged when asked about his big day.
"I just tried to get open and make plays," Dillon said. "That was it. There wasn’t nothing special to it."
Penalties a sticking point for Gamblers
Sumlin said unforced errors and penalties were partly to blame for his team’s demise against the Bandits.
Sumlin said his team had only one penalty last week, but finished with seven penalties for 80 yards on Saturday
Two of those penalties occurred in the fourth quarter with Houston trying to put the game away, negating a long pass play and a first down that would have kept the chains moving.
"We had those two holding calls at critical times," Sumlin said. "That leads to where we are right now, particularly in a close game with yardage and everything else. Statistically, it was about as close as you can, so when that happens, those types of things can’t occur for you to win one-score games.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @eric_d_williams.