DETROIT — The Gamblers may have already played before the Memphis Showboats and Michigan Panthers kicked off in prime time on Saturday, but it ended up being Memphis head coach Todd Haley’s gamble that paid off for his team.
And with the help of Haley's gutsy call, Memphis now has its first win of the season, a 29-10 triumph over Michigan in Detroit.
The Showboats put the game away thanks in large part to Haley’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Michigan 32 with his team up 16-10. He could have left it up to his kicker, who had already hit from beyond 50 yards twice in the game. But a nine-point lead in the USFL isn't as sure of a lead as its NFL counterpart. With the three-point play rule in the USFL, no single-digit lead is more than a one-score lead. So, Haley decided to be aggressive.
"I’m a big go with my gut guy," said Haley after the game. "Obviously we all prepare, we study, we know what we like, don't like. And in that situation, I just felt the momentum of the game […] we were starting to get it going, and I felt like a big play there which [wide receiver Vinny Papale] made and [quarterback Cole Kelley] made where it was a huge, huge situational play for us. And that's what the game comes down to. It's making critical plays in critical situations."
The fourth-and-3 gamble paid off, as the Showboats went empty. Kelley dropped back and hit Papale for a 15-yard gain. It set Memphis up at the Michigan 17, and three carries later, the Showboats had second-and-goal at the 6. Kelley pulled the ball himself and ran it right up the middle for the 6-yard score, punctuating Memphis’ lead, 23-10 with 5:08 left in the game.
As if that hadn’t already put the game away, Michigan quarterback Josh Love was stripped of the ball on a sack on the Panthers’ ensuing drive. It was Memphis outside linebacker Jeff McCulloch who forced the fumble, recovered it and then took it all the way to the house, tacking on six more points to the Showboats’ total.
"I just have to thank the man upstairs. I wasn't supposed to be playing today [because of] injuries," said McCulloch after the game. "But coach, he had faith in me and allowed me to come back out here with this team that we've been working with."
McCulloch’s strip-sack touchdown return was just one of four turnovers forced by the Showboats’ defense, in addition to the fact they allowed the hometown Panthers just 10 total points.
It was a total team effort at the end of the game to secure Memphis’ first win of the season in Detroit in front of the Panthers’ home crowd.
"When you get a win like this as a team, it's just really good for everybody involved," said Haley. "It'd be one thing if guys were dragging their tails between their legs and not working, but this group has worked really hard and continues to work really hard despite the outcomes of a couple of those games. So, to come on the road [and] get a win was a big, big thing for us."
The Showboats gained steam as the game began, settling for a field goal on two of their first three drives, before punching it in on a quarterback sneak from Kelley in the second quarter.
Though they wouldn’t score again before halftime, the Showboats also kept Michigan’s points to a minimum. After getting to the Memphis 6-yard line, the Panthers were forced to kick the field goal after the Showboats stuffed them on third-and-1.
The Memphis defense then held up its end of the bargain the rest of the way, keeping the Panthers to just one trip to the end zone for the second straight week.
The star of the night for the Showboats may have been an unlikely one. Kicker Alex Kessman is a Michigan native and his hometown of Clarkston is about 40 minutes outside of Detroit. And while the prime time crowd at Ford Field was pretty loud already, they seemed to get even louder on kickoffs, and especially when Kessman booted a field goal. There was good reason for that.
"I'm most proud of our kicker," Haley said at halftime. "He's got a lot of people in the stands today. I think he's got about 100 people, friends and family, so to see him make two 50-plus-yarders was pretty cool."
Kessman finished the night 3-for-3 on field goals, hitting from 54, 53 and 37 yards.
"It was great," Kessman said after the game. "I don't know how else to say that. To do it in front of my friends and family, to come back and have the opportunity again, and take advantage of the opportunity. It was special. And I'm not going to forget it, and I'm going to keep moving and keep building on it and just like we are right now."
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.