Kenji Bahar-Justin Hall connection sparks Gamblers' victory over Showboats
Houston earns its first win of the season thanks to a dramatic late drive against Memphis.
By Eric Williams
FOX Sports Writer
MEMPHIS — With 13 seconds remaining and his team down three points, a surprised Justin Hall found himself wide open with the game on the line.
Hall concentrated on the pass from quarterback Kenji Bahar, brought it into his chest and tip-toed down the sideline for a 3-yard touchdown reception and the game-winner in a wild, 30-26 come-from-behind victory for the Houston Gamblers over the Memphis Showboats.
Highlights: Gamblers edge Showboats in dramatic finish
"I peeked, and the corner had left," Hall said. "He went with the outside receiver, and I just knew I was wide open. Kenji (Bahar) made a great pass. The O-line held their own, everybody did their 1-of-11, and we ended up with the win."
The Showboats appeared to have a busted coverage on the play. Memphis head coach Todd Haley said his defense was in zone.
"It’s a combination of everyone doing their job," Haley said. "That’s one of the things that happens when you’re struggling, people try to do a little too much. But we were in a relatively safe call with the situation at hand, and we obviously didn’t execute."
Three players earlier, Bahar hit tight end Josh Pederson for a 36-yard completion down the middle of the field to set up the score. Bahar had his best game of the season, finishing 22-of-36 for 235 yards, with two touchdowns. His only blemish was an interception at the end of the first half.
Hall finished with six receptions for 90 yards and two scores, including a Herculean effort on a wide receiver screen. The Ball State product broke four tackles, cutting across the field and outrunning Memphis cornerback Jermaine Kelly for a 41-yard touchdown reception that gave the Gamblers a 10-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
Playing in his first game of the season after missing the first two because of illness, bruising running back Mark Thompson reminded the USFL what it had seen from him last year.
The leading rusher in the USFL in 2022, Thompson finished with 84 yards on 21 carries and two scores, including a 15-yard touchdown run in which he bowled over four defenders on his way to the end zone.
The Gamblers leaned on the ground game to control the clock most of the evening, finishing with 132 yards on the ground.
"I was excited to see him play," said Houston safety Donald Rutledge Jr., who led the Gamblers with nine combined tackles. "I’ve seen it all day in practice, all week all camp. And he delivered."
The Showboats tied the game at 10-all just before the half on a nifty trick play. Memphis went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Running back Alex Collins took a direct snap from center, ran left and then stopped and floated a left-handed pass to tight end Jay Jay Wilson in the back of the end zone for the score.
Haley said he named the trick play Skipper, after the team’s mascot. Collins said that was his first touchdown pass at any level.
"They had confidence in me, and I manifested it," Collins said. "I was excited when they called Skipper. I saw it happen before it happened."
The Gamblers scored 13 unanswered points in the third quarter to seize control of the game at 23-10. Houston started six of its eight drives on offense at midfield or in Memphis territory in the second half. The Gamblers still had trouble staying disciplined, with 11 accepted penalties for 110 yards.
However, the Showboats did not let the Gamblers quietly go away, mounting a late comeback.
A Brandon Wright 26-yard field goal cut Houston’s advantage to 23-13 with 11:30 left in the game. Haley curiously chose to go for the 4th-and-12 retention play and the Showboats failed to convert, giving the Gamblers the ball on the Memphis 33-yard line.
However, the Memphis defense held, and the Showboats got the ball back. Making his first start this season, Cole Kelley hit running back Kerrith Whyte on a flat route, and with linebacker Khalan Tolson getting caught in the middle of the field, the speedy running back took it down the sideline 30 yards for a score with 4:12 left in the game, cutting Houston’s lead to 23-20 with 4:12 left.
Gamblers kicker Nick Vogel missed a 40-yard field goal wide left on Houston’s ensuing possession, and the Showboats took it on their own 30-yard line with 2:49 left, needing just a field goal to tie.
Memphis quickly marched 70 yards on five plays. Kelley found Ryan McDaniel, who made a circus catch for a 28-yard touchdown after Houston cornerback Nick Grant tipped the ball up in the air.
But the Showboats left too much time on the clock with 1:48 left and the Gamblers drove the length of the field for the game-winner.
Cole Kelley plays well in his first USFL start
Looking for a spark on offense after scoring just two points last week, Haley made a change at quarterback, starting Southeastern Louisiana product Kelley in place of Memphis product Brady White.
The 6-7, 250-pound signal-caller played solid, finishing 21-of-38 for 307 yards, with two touchdown passes and an interception.
However, Kelley lamented that the offense finished 2-of-12 on third down and 1-of-3 in the red zone.
"I thought we had a pretty good grasp of their defense all game long," Kelley said. "Honestly, I think we beat ourselves a lot. … Those are the critical areas, and we didn’t do a good enough job of finishing. But we were moving the ball pretty well all game."
The Showboats suffered injuries to two of their top receivers. Receiver Rashard Davis went down with a non-contact leg injury early in the fourth quarter and did not return in what was described on TV as an Achilles injury.
Memphis receiver Vinny Papale took a big hit from Rutledge in the second quarter and had to leave the game.
Papale was reportedly coughing up blood after the hit and was ruled out with a chest injury. Running back T.J. Pledger suffered a right ankle injury in the third quarter and had to leave the game.
Houston Gamblers defensive tackle Damion Daniels suffered a leg injury in the first half and had to leave the game. Daniels did not return.
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.