By Eric D. Williams
FOX sports writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — A nine-point drop in the last quarter, the Tampa Bay Bandits took advantage of a blocked shot to score, and the quarterback Jordan Ta’amu led his team 48 yards on the final drive, setting a Anthony Cioffi 46-yard field goal for one 27-26 win over the Houston players on Saturday.
Tampa Bay coach Todd Haley said the win was a comforting balm after suffering an embarrassing 31-point loss to the New Orleans Breakers last week.
“I thought we had a really good week of practice,” Haley said. “The game was not at all what we wanted it to be, especially at the beginning. But the guys stuck together.”
The win spoiled an impressive night for Houston running back Mark Thompson. The University of Florida product achieved a season record of 147 yards on 24 carries, the best in the USFL this season.
Thompson’s total included the USFL’s best 55-yard rush to score, helping the Gamblers to a 26-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Thompson leads the USFL with 300 yards in three games.
At 6’4″ and 100 pounds, Thompson was tough for the Bandits to take down, but he also has quick feet and instincts to make tacklers miss in space.
Thompson combined well with Houston quarterback Clayton Thorson’s deep pass, who finished 15 of 24 passes for 240 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Thorson completed passes to 10 different receivers.
“He’s a big guy,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said of Thompson. “He’s powerful and a little faster than the guys think he is. He’s getting in shape. Three weeks ago I don’t know if he would have scored such a long goal… He’s got good patience and good power.”
However, the game play took place with 12:30 remaining. Punting from his own 39-yard line, Houston punter Andrew Galitz missed the snap and had his punt blocked by Tampa Bay quarterback Quenton Meeks.
Vinny Papale came in with the ball loose for the Bandits, retrieving it at Houston’s 4-yard line. Three plays later, Ta’amu climbed five yards for a touchdown, reducing Houston’s lead to 26-24 early in the fourth quarter and setting up Rousa’s late-game theatrics.
Haley credited special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. for the blocked kick, saying it was even more impressive because his kick blocking unit had only 10 guys on the field.
Ta’amu finished 21-of-36 for 255 yards, with a touchdown pass and an interception. His favorite target was Derrick Dillon, who had six receptions for 124 yards and a score.
With the win, Bandits improved to 2-1 for the year, while the Gamblers dropped to 1-2.
Tampa Bay took control of the game early on in a five-play, 75-yard campaign after the kickoff. The big play was Ta’amu connecting with Dillon in the background, with the shrewd receiver making three quarterbacks miss and rushing across the sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
After the score, the players got 17 unanswered points to regain control of the game. On Houston’s first attempt, Nick Vogel scored a 46-yard field goal.
After forcing the Bandits to bet, the Gamblers took the lead in a strange move. Anthony Ratliff-Williams broke free behind the Tampa Bay defense for a big win, but was snatched away by safety Anthony Cioffi.
However, the ball returned to Ratliff-Williams and he held it in the end zone for a touchdown, giving the Gamblers a 10-7 lead midway through the first quarter.
Thompson opened the game on a 55-yard burst through the middle to score, avoiding a defender at the line of scrimmage and running untouched down the left sideline.
Tampa Bay reduced Houston’s lead to 17-14 on a nine-play, 70-yard drive, capped by a 13-yard touchdown by San Diego State product Juwan Washington.
Haley gives her daughter a game ball
Haley held the game ball after his team’s big win, given to the coach by his players as a gift to his daughter.
Haley’s daughter, Peyton Caroline Haley, graduated with honors from the University of Florida. Instead of attending her daughter’s graduation ceremony, Haley chose to coach her team for a victory over the Gamblers on Saturday.
“It’s one of my most special moments,” Haley said. “I’ve been to a lot of big games. I told her I’d skip the game if you wanted to, and she told me just to win the game and that would be good enough for me.”
Dillon shows himself
Entering Saturday’s competition, Dillon had just one catch for 11 yards on two targets. But that all changed against Houston as he finished with six receptions for 124 yards on six targets.
Dillon’s numbers could have been even better as he had a 50-yard touchdown called back due to a hold penalty. The LSU product just shrugged it off when asked about their big day.
“I just tried to open up and make plays,” Dillon said. “That was it. There was nothing special about it.”
Penalties a point of contention for players
Sumlin said unforced errors and penalties were partly to blame for his team’s defeat against the Bandits.
Sumlin said his team had only one penalty last week but ended up with eight penalties on Saturday.
Two of those penalties came in the fourth quarter, with Houston trying to end the game, denying a long pass play and a first down that would have kept the chains moving.
“We had those two calls at critical moments,” Sumlin said. “That leads to where we are right now, particularly in a close game with yards and all. Statistically, it was as close as possible, so when that happens, that kind of thing can’t happen for you to win a scoring game.”
Eric D. Williams has been an NFL reporter for over 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 @eric_d_williams.
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