Gamblers take their shot, and it pays off in win over Stallions

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Trailing on the road as the fourth quarter began Saturday afternoon and with their starting quarterback missing the game with an injury, the Houston Gamblers finally saw an opportunity to throw deep on the defending USFL champion Birmingham Stallions. Backup QB Terry Wilson didn't waste that chance.

Wilson, who had thrown for 48 yards in the first three quarters, covered that in one crucial pass, heaving a 50-yard pass down the middle that receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams hauled in for a go-ahead score on the way to a key 27-20 win over the Stallions.

"I saw Anthony running down there, and I just trusted his speed, and I let it float," said Wilson, making his first USFL start in two seasons as Kenji Bahar couldn't go due to an ankle injury.

Wilson put the Gamblers ahead, and running back Mark Thompson helped put the game away, rushing for two of his three touchdowns in the final four minutes. That gives him eight touchdowns in three games this season, a big part of why Houston has won three straight to pull even with the Stallions at 3-2 in second place in the South Division.

"The biggest difference for us was penalties and turnovers," said Houston coach Curtis Johnson, whose team had no turnovers and no flags, while benefiting from 10 Birmingham penalties.

Down 27-13 late, Birmingham got a touchdown with 10 seconds left, leaving them with a uniquely USFL choice: take the traditional onsides kick or try an untimed fourth-and-12 play from their 33. They chose the offensive play but couldn't convert, allowing Houston to run out the clock.

Wilson's path to Birmingham has been a long one. He started his college career at Oregon, bounced from a junior college to Kentucky, where he started 25 games before finishing with a single season at New Mexico in 2021. On Saturday, he played mistake-free football, throwing for 117 yards and the touchdown while also rushing for 42 yards.

"It started with a phenomenal week of practice," Wilson said. "We knew it was going to be hot, so we just wanted to be ready for anything. We knew we were going to play hard and it was going to be a battle. I feel like we brought it and got the W."

With Thompson sidelined by injury, Houston opened the year 0-2, but the Gamblers have won three straight with their starting running back healthy. He rushed for a game-high 80 yards and three scores Saturday, the two late scores being crucial.

Birmingham coach Skip Holtz has seen his team go 14-3 over the USFL's two seasons, and two of the three losses have come against Houston. One sequence summed up Saturday's struggles well — needing a touchdown to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Stallions converted on fourth-and-4, only to see that negated by a penalty. They then converted again on fourth-and-14, only to see the ruling of a catch overturned on review for an incompletion and turnover on downs.

"A very frustrating day," Holtz said. "I will give Coach Johnson and Houston an awful lot of credit ... it stinks to lose. Nobody likes to lose. We certainly had opportunities today that we could have capitalized on. We made our share of mistakes, and it was a frustrating day in a lot of respects."

The two teams are now tied at 3-2, both behind the New Orleans Breakers (4-0) in the South, knowing only two of those three teams will earn a spot in the playoffs. That sets up a rematch between the two teams in Memphis on June 11 in the second-to-last week of the regular season.

Houston caught another break thanks to a unique USFL rule. In the NFL, if a player fumbles through the end zone, it's a touchback for the defensive team, but when that happens in the USFL, the ball is placed at the spot of the fumble with the fumbling team retaining possession. Thompson had a 17-yard rush to the Birmingham 11-yard line and a Stallions defender poked the ball out through the end zone. But the ball went back to the Gamblers, and three plays later, Thompson had his first touchdown and Houston a 7-0 lead.

"I didn't like it today," Holtz said of the rule change, implemented this season. "Normally, I think it's a really good rule."

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.