Emotional win for Breakers' veteran QB, first-time head coach in opener

Emotional win for Breakers' veteran QB, first-time head coach in opener

Apr 17

By RJ Young
FOX Sports USFL Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — New Orleans Breakers coach John DeFilippo found his father, Gene, on the sideline at Protective Stadium and hugged him amid the frenzied joy of Breakers players. With his first opportunity to coach a professional football team after 15 years as an assistant in the NFL, he coached his team to a 22-15 win against the Pittsburgh Maulers on Sunday night.

"This is a very, very unbelievable feeling," DeFilippo said, "something that you think about a lot when you're in this profession. To have my folks here to experience my first game as a head coach and not only do that but to get a win, was unbelievable."

DeFilippo, who has been diagnosed with a rare medical condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which can cause debilitating pain in one’s back and feet, has been told the disease might not allow him to run at all. On Sunday, he ran out of the tunnel at Protective Stadium in a walking boot.

His team rallied around him, feeding off of his passion for them and the game he coaches.

"I'm not here without Coach [DeFilippo]," said Breakers quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a veteran of the Canadian Football League. "He's the reason why I came down here. There's not many other coaches, if any, that I’d come down here and play for."

While his offense got off to a slow start, the Breakers defense picked up where it left off. The USFL’s best-scoring defense of 2022 did not allow an offensive TD in its first game of 2023.

After the Maulers and Breakers each scored a field goal on their opening possessions of the season, neither team averaged more than 2.7 yards per play in the first half. There were no offensive touchdowns until the fourth quarter. 

The Maulers offense, though, was especially erratic, compiling just 156 total yards in the game. Pittsburgh quarterbacks James Morgan and Troy Williams combined to complete just 10 of 27 passes for 81 yards. 

Maulers defense has prize in Foster

But the defense did what it could to keep the Maulers in striking distance. Their effort was punctuated when former first-round pick and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster hit Breakers running back Anthony Jones and caused a fumble.

The hit came in Foster’s first game as a professional in more than four years, dating back to October 2018.

"He's a legitimate player," Maulers coach Ray Horton said. "He's a heck of a man, a leader. He's a guy that wants to have the play come down to him. He exemplifies what we want to be on defense. So he's everything that I can hope for. The men look towards him. So do I."

Maulers linebacker Kyahva Tezino recovered Jones’ fumble in the end zone for the first defensive TD of the USFL season, and the first TD of the season of any sort for Pittsburgh.

The Maulers had an opportunity to score their first offensive TD with 10:23 left to play. But on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Breakers linebacker Vontae Diggs managed to stop Maulers running back Garrett Groshek in the backfield.

After the turnover-on-downs, the Breakers were forced to punt after 11 plays and chewing 4:58 off the clock. However, New Orleans punter Matt Coughlin’s 21-yard punt was returned 82 yards to pay dirt by Isiah Hines, tieing the score at 15-15 with 4:32 left to play.

After Maulers kicker Nathan Hierlihy missed his extra point attempt, he made a bad situation worse when he yanked his kickoff out of bounds, which allowed Bethel-Thompson and the Breakers to begin their series from the 50-yard line. 

Bethel-Thompson comes up clutch 

DeFilippo put the game in the hands of the oldest player in the league, his 34-year-old quarterback. Following two short completions, Bethel-Thompson found wideout Sage Surratt on a crossing route over the middle for a 36-yard gain. 

A steady diet of Bethel-Thompson-to-Jones led to a 2-yard completion for the game’s first offensive TD, coming with 1:13 to play. A made extra point made the game 22-15 when the Maulers took over possession. 

The Maulers’ last chance to tie the game came on a failed pass attempt on fourth down from the Breakers’ 32-yard line. 

Bethel-Thompson became the USFL’s first 300-yard passer of the season in the win. He completed 23 of 41 attempts for 302 yards, but none was bigger than his game-winning toss to Jones. 

Bethel-Thompson came to the USFL after a career in the CFL, where he won two Grey Cups and passed for more than 4,000 yards twice.

"Coming out in the first half, we were like a Ferrari, but we kind of put the wrong gas in the Ferrari," he said. "So we weren't moving so well. And then the second half kind of got going and that means the most."

DeFilippo wasn’t pleased with how the Breakers offense functioned in the first half, either. 

"I thought offensively it was probably one of the most painful first halves of football I've ever had to witness," he said. "But I was proud of our guys that they stepped up and they came out to play unbelievably in the second half. 

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.

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