By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
And with the Stallions driving toward a potential game-winning field goal attempt, defensive back Micah Abernathy delivered the knockout blow.
Abernathy also had an important tackle for loss late in the game on Birmingham running back CJ Marable that forced the Stallions to kick a field goal rather than go for a touchdown. Along with the interception, Abernathy finished with nine combined tackles and two pass breakups.
With the win, the Gamblers ended a seven-game losing streak, improving to 2-7 on the year. Meanwhile, the Stallions suffered their first loss of the season, dropping to 8-1.
Abernathy said he baited Smith into the bad throw. He took the football and handed it to his mother, Annette Abernathy, after the important takeaway.
"We knew they had to make a big play," Abernathy said. "We knew they were going to go to one or two people, and that's what they did. We tried to disguise it as best as we could, make them throw one up and that's what happened."
Houston had suffered a series of late-game heartbreaks but finally made enough plays down the stretch.
"There hasn’t been a game where these guys quit," Gamblers head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Even last week, we were going down the field at the end of the game. So, I just told them how much I appreciate their effort. It’s hard to give that speech every Monday or Sunday. But it had to change sometime, and the ball had to bounce our way. I just appreciate their effort and continuing to play hard."
Making his second start, Houston quarterback Kenji Bahar finished 16-for-24 for 164 yards, including a pretty, 23-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Zuber off play-action on a seam pass down the middle of the field.
The pitch-and-catch gave the Gamblers the lead for good at 17-12 with 12:35 to play.
"Coach [Sumlin] told me before the game out of all the play-action passes we had, I should have three touchdowns. But we only called one today, and it was a touchdown," joked Bahar.
So how did the Gamblers figure out how to beat the previously undefeated Stallions? By playing complementary football — bottling up Birmingham’s potent run game led by Bo Scarbrough and forcing the Stallions to drive the ball on long drives for scores.
The Gamblers also did a good job of winning the turnover battle. Entering Week 9, Houston led the USFL with 24 takeaways. The Gamblers forced Birmingham into the interception late in the game and did not turn the ball over.
"Winning is hard in every league at every level," Birmingham head coach Skip Holtz said. "You get what you deserve, and you get what you earn out here. And Houston earned that win today. I give them kudos and an awful lot of credit in how hard they played and what they did. We’ve got to clean some things up."
Holtz: ‘Statistics are for losers’
The Stallions seem to win the game everywhere but on the scoreboard.
Birmingham held the Gamblers to just 29 rushing yards. Houston finished 0-for-11 on third-down conversions. Birmingham finished 6-for-11 on third down.
The Stallions held a 308-187 advantage in total yards and held the ball for eight minutes longer than Houston on offense.
However, the Gamblers won where it counted, on the scoreboard.
"Statistics are for losers," Holtz said. "It just goes to show that there’s a lot more that goes into winning and losing than having talent."
Gamblers win the hidden yardage battle
One area that helped Houston control the game was special teams.
The Gamblers averaged 35 yards a pop on kickoff returns, giving Houston’s offense good field position throughout the game.
And defensively, punter Andrew Galitz did a nice job of pinning the Stallions’ offense deep in their own territory, averaging 48 yards a punt and finishing with six punts inside Birmingham’s 20-yard line.
Houston Gamblers special teams coach Greg McMahon had another strong week.
"We gave them long fields today," Sumlin said. "And we basically got the ball in good to decent field position. It was more than just the return game, which was excellent. But I thought we punted the ball well, and when we didn’t move the ball, we gave them long fields."
Added Holtz: "We got our backsides beat on special teams. The field position battle was brutal."
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 at @eric_d_williams.