McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Wes Hills guide Breakers' strong finish
Gamblers' late mistakes make difference as New Orleans tops Houston to improve to 2-0.
By Greg Auman
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Wes Hills hesitated for a moment, slowing to a jog in the open field, then sped into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown with 42 seconds left.
Hills' third touchdown gave the New Orleans Breakers a wild 38-31 win over the Houston Gamblers, improving to 2-0 on the season and dropping Houston to 0-2.
Highlights: Breakers hold off Gamblers
Twice in the final seven minutes, Houston had answered a New Orleans touchdown with one of their own to tie the game, and with the ball at the 14-yard line, the Breakers could have run the clock down to the final seconds to try to end the game with a field goal to win. But scoring a touchdown would also mean giving the Gamblers a chance to answer again, and New Orleans coach John DeFilippo even has a call — "church mode" — to instruct a player to go down short of scoring in such a scenario, but it wasn't the call Saturday.
"I wanted to go down. I was in the thought process of going down. Should I score?" said the 27-year-old Hills, who played the last two years with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. "I heard JD yell 'Just score' so I just ran it in."
New Orleans quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, another CFL import, had finished a second straight solid game by dropping a 34-yard lob to receiver Lee Morris over coverage down the middle to put them in position to win.
"We knew that play was in the bag, and Coach had a feeling," Bethel-Thompson said. "I missed it a couple times this week in practice, and Coach stayed on me every time. It's beautiful when drill work comes to fruition in a game. The way (Morris) ran that route was perfect. I knew where he was going, and he made an unbelievable catch."
The 34-year-old quarterback threw for 251 yards, and just as importantly, no interceptions. His counterpart, Houston's Kenji Bahar, threw three picks, including two in the final minute.
Bahar's touchdown pass to Justin Hall had tied the game at 31-31 with 1:53 remaining, and the Breakers went three-and-out, giving Houston the chance to win in regulation. From his 42, Bahar threw a deep pass that was intercepted by Breakers safety Jarey Elder, returning it to midfield to set up Bethel-Thompson's throw to Morris. Given one more chance after Halls' touchdown in the final minute, Bahar was picked off again, this time by linebacker Vontae Diggs, to seal the Breakers' win.
"It was one of those back-and-forth games, but at the end, we just couldn't sustain anything, something we have to work on," said Gamblers coach Curtis Johnson, whose team had four turnovers in the second half of last week's loss to Michigan.
Johnson said he thought about telling his defense to allow the Breakers to score in the final minute, but ultimately decided against it, so Hills pushed through a tackle to find the end zone.
Hills, who scored two touchdowns in his only NFL game as an injury replacement in 2019 with the Detroit Lions, had to go to Canada to play the last two years and was grateful to be back playing football closer to home. He finished with 110 rushing yards Saturday, with two of his scores in the final four minutes.
"It's been a long road to get here, but I'm very thankful to Coach Flip for giving me an opportunity to come out here and play, to show what I can do," Hills said.
Bethel-Thompson, who threw for a league-best 302 yards last week, had another strong game Saturday, especially in connecting with tight end Sage Surratt, who had 11 catches on 11 targets for 121 yards and a touchdown. Bahar, despite the three interceptions, finished with 266 yards and three scores, including two to Hall as part of an eight-catch, 110-yard day for him.
New Orleans plays its home games in Birmingham this season, but they'll be the road team on the same field next week as they face the USFL's defending champs in the Birmingham Stallions, who opened the season 1-0 entering Saturday's game against Memphis. Houston will go to Memphis next week, trying to get its first win of 2023 against the Showboats, who lost their season opener last week.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere," DeFilippo said. "We've developed a relationship with the (Birmingham) coaching staff and the players, with the same meeting rooms in the same facility. We're going to enjoy this one tonight, give ourselves 24 hours, and then we'll be all Birmingham Stallions come tomorrow."
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.
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