Just call Houston running back Mark Thompson the (not so) little engine that could, as the Gamblers rolled on in the first half of Saturday’s game. The 6-foot-1 running back scored on Houston’s opening drive in spectacular fashion: bobbing, weaving and spinning out of tackles for a 33-yard scamper into the end zone. At one point, it looked like Thompson even surprised himself with the way he was able to shake defenders and how much open field he found in front of him. He wasn’t even close to done, either.
Thompson ended the day with three rushing touchdowns, racking up 134 total yards on 13 carries. That was good for an average of 10.3 yards per rush — a triumphant day for the former Florida Gator, who had missed the first two weeks of the season with an injury.
"Great to be back on the field, be out there with the team," said Thompson after the game. "The energy, those guys bring it, so I try to bring my part, too, as one of 11. Being patient, letting everything open up and let those big guys up front do their thing and just hitting the holes when I had to hit them, and staying on assignment.
And while Thompson seemed to deflect any praise, Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson was quick to place it back on him.
"We got our running back back, so he might be our good luck charm," said Johnson. "When you have a dynamic back like Mark in the game, it opens up so much. He's big, He's fast. He's physical.
Houston (2-2) has won both games that Thompson has played in this season.
Asked if he should be up for player of the week with his performance on Saturday, a wide grin spread across Thompson’s face.
"I mean, maybe? Hopefully?" he said almost bashfully. "Honestly, if I’m player of the week I have to give hats off to the guys up front and the receivers blocking downfield."
We love a humble king.
Philadelphia (1-3) wasn’t so lucky, not being able to find any sort of rhythm offensively. Despite opting to receive the opening kickoff and starting the day with an easy 5-yard completion by quarterback Case Cookus, momentum proved elusive, and the Stars went three-and-out on their first drive.
They wouldn’t see their initial first down of the game until 13 minutes later. It came on their lone touchdown drive of the first half, largely due to a spark from the defense after linebacker Joey Alfieri recovered a fumble.
Cookus himself took three sacks in the first half alone, and Philadelphia uncharacteristically only managed to convert one of six third-down attempts. Coming into the game, they were third in the USFL in third-down conversion rate at 44.4%. They finished with four third-down conversions on the day out of 12 attempts.
"Our third-down package, we really just had this thing: beat me there don’t meet me there in the backfield. I think we all take that to heart," said Houston defensive end Reggie Walker. "It was just a day where everyone on the D-line was coming and coming and coming."
In all, the Gamblers racked up six sacks on Cookus. Walker finished with two, along with two tackles for loss.
After Houston surrendered that aforementioned fumble, they responded three-fold by the time the first half was over. Their next score came on a 10-yard run by Thompson on a well-balanced seven-play, 69-yard drive put together by quarterback Kenji Bahar at the start of the second quarter.
Houston got in two more scores before the half was over, including a 54-yard touchdown from Bahar to wide receiver Keke Chism on a short crosser, hitting Chism over the middle in stride.
The Gamblers went into the locker room at halftime up 27-7.
Houston lost Bahar halfway through the third quarter, but not before they put together a nine-play, 71-yard touchdown drive in the first possession of the second half. Bahar was listed as questionable with a right knee injury and did not return to the game, finishing 15-of-21 for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
That didn’t stop the Gamblers, either. On the very next drive, with backup quarterback Terry Wilson in the game, Houston again ended up in the end zone, albeit in an unorthodox way. From the Philadelphia 29-yard line, Wilson took off up the middle and had the ball punched out of his hands. But like everyone’s hope at the craps table, the ball took a fortuitous roll — exactly where Houston needed it. Chism recovered the ball in the end zone and the play was ruled a touchdown, putting the Gamblers up 41-7 after the good extra point.
Philadelphia was able to muster some late-game energy and scored a touchdown with 1:06 left to play. They went for the USFL-exclusive three-point play, in which a team is allowed to run a play from the 10-yard line with the goal of getting into the end zone for three points. It was intercepted and after a long return the other way, Wilson took a couple of knees to end the game with a final score of 41-16.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.