By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
It stopped them.
On fourth-and-26 from the Houston 30-yard line, the Gamblers made the stop that finally extinguished Michigan's strong second-half rally to hold on for a 17-12 victory Sunday.
Shea Patterson's last-second pass for La'Michael Pettway was caught just inches out of the right corner of the end zone, giving Houston its first victory of the inaugural USFL season. (The play would have been called back for an illegal chop block anyway, had Pettway managed to get both feet in.)
On a day that began cold and wet with a weather delay and ended up hot and humid, the Gamblers' defenders doubled as the Houston Hitmen all afternoon, enforcing their will on the Panthers for most of the game.
Gamblers coach Kevin Sumlin expected that defensive coordinator Tim Lewis and the Houston defense would be a problem for opponents this season. When I asked Sumlin what he thought the strength of his team was in March, he pointed to the defense. With one game down and one win, he’s certain about it now.
"I think our defensive front, our 'backers, can match up and play with anybody," he said. "They basically won the game for us."
Gooden goes off in front of hometown fans
Gamblers defensive end Ahmad Gooden, who hails from Birmingham, had three forced fumbles and two sacks in front of the hometown crowd. That's more forced fumbles in the first half against the Panthers than he created in four years in college just down the road at Samford.
Gooden recorded 276 career tackles and just two forced fumbles in his college career for the Bulldogs.
"Yeah, it was a good day," Gooden said. "Coach (Lewis) put together the game plan, and we've been working really hard. The linebackers all got together and made sure that we rehearsed. So, I guess I was just in the right place at the right time and trusted the defense."
Not to be totally outdone, former Florida State linebacker and undefeated mixed martial arts fighter Reggie Northrup forced one fumble and returned another for the game's first touchdown. He finished with 11 tackles and the defensive highlight of the game.
When the Gamblers walked into the locker room at halftime, they were in control with a 17-0 lead against Jeff Fisher’s Panthers.
"Even though you know, we stalled out on offense, our defense pitched a shutout in the first half," Sumlin said.
Sumlin would not have been pleased with his team’s ability to throw the ball, though, even in wet conditions. Quarterback Clayton Thorson completed just six of 13 pass attempts for 52 yards in the half — fewer than running back Mark Thompson rushed for (59) on fewer rushing attempts (10).
Thompson was tabbed early by USFL executive vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston as a player to watch, and he met expectations by running through tackles. He finished with 71 rushing yards at 5.5 yards per carry.
But Thorson finished with just 73 passing yards, completing just nine of his 17 pass attempts. Sumlin has a reputation for developing quarterbacks at Houston (Case Keenum) and Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel), so he will surely have plenty of notes for the former Northwestern starter.
Sumlin inserted former Monmouth quarterback Kenji Bahar in the fourth quarter in a one-possession game.
Panthers plagued by turnovers
The Panthers fumbled the ball five times — three in the second quarter — and each quarterback lost one in the first half. Paxton Lynch also threw an interception, and neither he nor Patterson looked comfortable in the early going.
In fact, the Panthers completed as many passes in the first half as they fumbled (five). By the end of the game, Michigan had fumbled the ball an astounding nine times with three turnovers.
"In the game of football," Fisher said, "you don't turn the ball over like we did and win very many of them."
But Patterson managed to lead the Panthers to their first scoring drive of the season with 9:35 left in the third quarter. He finished off the drive with a pass to wideout Lance Lenoir from eight yards out after running backs Stevie Scott III and Cam Scarlett carried the Panthers downfield.
"Anytime you need to fix something on offense," Fisher said, "you need to turn around and hand it off."
The Panthers were at their best when running the ball, and their ability to run the ball allowed Patterson to settle down and ease into the game.
And it showed. Patterson, who was working without the headset in his helmet for some of the game, finished 17-for-24 for 192 passing yards after the rough start.
In the first quarter, safety Warren Saba broke his forearm and is out for the season. Fisher said Saba will have surgery Monday.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.