Gritty Gamblers ride running game, defense to fourth straight win
Mark Thompson rushes for ninth touchdown of the season as Houston tops New Jersey, remains unbeaten when star running back plays.
MEMPHIS — The Houston Gamblers showed Sunday that they are right at home in their hub city of Memphis, managing to pull off a 16-10 Grind City win against the New Jersey Generals to extend their winning streak to a league-best four in a row.
Running back Mark Thompson continued to perform as the best TD machine in the USFL. Before the first quarter ended against New Jersey, Thompson punched into the end zone from 6 yards out for his league-best ninth rushing TD of the season.
Thompson, who finished the day with 82 yards on 22 carries, has been a force when offensive coordinator Eric Price has been able to define the run-block look for him with man-on-man blocking from the offensive line. His vision has been clear and clean because of it.
"It is definitely really clean this year," Thompson said. "Last year we had a lot of things going on, and I was just grateful to be playing the game of football. It was fun being out there, but the result last year wasn't always in our favor. So this year, I'm really excited that I'm getting a chance to utilize my great offensive line."
After missing the first two weeks of the season with an injury, Thompson has scored all nine of his TDs in the last four games. The Gamblers are undefeated when the former Florida product lines up in the backfield.
The Gamblers offense also received a boost from the return of Monmouth all-time leading passer Kenji Bahar. Houston averaged more than 34 points across Bahar’s last three starts.
Bahar has elevated his game from one year ago, not only earning the starting job but becoming the kind of player he showed himself to be in college. He finished the game completing 19 of 29 passes for 130 yards and credited Houston coach Curtis Johnson for his leap in development as a pro from 2022 to 2023.
"I think it's more just (Coach Johnson) being more of a player's coach," Bahar said. "It’s not just him telling us what to do. He asks us what we want to do, what we do well. That goes to show how we play."
With Bahar behind center, Houston picked up 12 first downs and put itself in position for Nick Vogel to make two field goals (37 and 38 yards), giving the Gamblers a two-score lead in the first half. They were 6-for-9 on third-down conversions in the first quarter, while New Jersey was just 2-for-6.
The Generals offense was erratic at best with quarterback Kyle Lauletta receiving his first start of the season. Lauletta completed just four of his 12 first-half pass attempts for 33 yards and an interception, though he managed an 18-yard scramble to generate some momentum for the offense in the second quarter.
All but two of the Generals' first-half offensive possessions ended with punts. The two that didn't ended on a turnover on downs and an interception.
Houston defensive back Jeremiah Johnson went live-eating on a Lauletta pass he intercepted — his second in as many weeks — to set up a field goal that extended the Gamblers' lead to 13-0.
With their first possession of the second half, the Gamblers offense got into position to let Vogel have another go from the 25-yard logo, and he splashed from 34 yards out to put the Gamblers up 16-0, a lead they would just make hold up.
The Generals managed to get on the scoreboard to avoid foreclosure at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, after getting their pockets emptied at the table by the Gamblers.
With about 10 minutes left to play, though, and just their second possession of the second half, the Generals mounted a 12-play, 90-yard offensive.
Lauletta found wideout Alonzo Moore on a drag route across the formation for his first passing TD of the year, closing the gap to 16-10 with 3:04 to play. Lauletta finished 17-of-39 with a TD and an INT.
"I just feel like we got into a rhythm there," Lauletta said of the late surge. "I was throwing the ball more accurately down the stretch, getting rid of the ball before the rush could get there and just trying to find open guys."
After the TD, Riley made the decision to take advantage of the USFL rule that allows a team to attempt a fourth-and-12 play from their own 33-yard line instead of an onsides kick.
The attempt failed, however, and Houston took possession with just over three minutes left in the game.
The Gamblers knew when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and left the Bank riding a four-game winning streak, ready to hit the tables again next weekend and let it ride.
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.