CANTON, Ohio — It is a brave choice when someone with a name like Chris Blewitt chooses to be a kicker, knowing how cruel and easy the headlines are when a crucial, game-changing kick doesn't go the right way.
The Pittsburgh Maulers kicker hit his first four field goals Saturday, including makes from 54 and 53 yards, but with a chance to take the lead with less than two minutes left, Blewitt ... missed wide right from 41 yards, allowing the Houston Gamblers to escape with a 20-19 win.
"It came down to one kick at the end of the game in a one-point game and we didn't make it, but I would do the same thing again," Pittsburgh coach Ray Horton said. "I would have faith in Chris every single time. I never questioned that he was going to make it."
Pittsburgh (2-6) now has the worst record in the USFL, while Houston (5-3) helped its chances in a log-jammed South Division. While Blewitt's miss was the difference in the game, the Maulers' larger problem was sending him out four times earlier when they could have scored touchdowns instead.
"Obviously, you love seven (points). That's what you want," Horton said. "It puts the game out of reach early, so it was 13-0 instead of 21. So it's huge. It's critical that you score seven."
Houston stole the game on two huge carries by running back Mark Thompson, who now has a USFL-leading 13 touchdowns this season. With two minutes left in the first half, Pittsburgh led 13-0 and had outgained the Gamblers 199-47, but Houston put together a solid drive, and on fourth-and-1 at the 23, Thompson broke through for a touchdown to pull within a score.
Quarterback Kenji Bahar's 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Keke Chism got Houston to within 16-13 on the first play of the fourth quarter, and the Gamblers defense stepped up. Pittsburgh drove to the Houston 24, but then lost yardage on three straight plays, settling again for a Blewitt kick and a 19-13 lead.
Houston leaned heavily on Thompson late. Facing a third-and-6 at the Maulers' 33 with 4:44 left, Thompson again broke through the line and into the open field, going 33 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Houston coach Curtis Johnson said he's careful not to overwork his top back early in games, not only to give him fresh legs at the end but just to keep him healthy for the rest of the year.
"He's an outstanding player, but I like him healthy," Johnson said. "So we get around to everybody. I don't want it to be smashmouth and 5 yards and a cloud of dust, because that's too many licks on him. But every time he gets the ball, it's electric."
Thompson finished with 98 yards on 14 carries, half of those in the fourth quarter. After Blewitt's missed kick, the Maulers still had two timeouts, but Thompson rushed twice for another first down, allowing the Gamblers to run out the clock on a tough win.
The final two weeks of the regular season are divisional games, and Houston controls its destiny for a division title, with both games at its "home" hub in Memphis. Win next week against Birmingham (5-2) and the Gamblers will have at least a share of the division lead, and they'll close against a 4-3 New Orleans team that beat the Gamblers in their first meeting.
Pittsburgh, even at 2-6, isn't mathematically eliminated from playoff contention — the Maulers are two games behind Michigan for the second and final playoff berth in the North Division, but could catch the Panthers if they win their last two games and Michigan loses its last three.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.