Stars take advantage of Gamblers’ late-game struggles
By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Try as they might, the Houston Gamblers just can’t catch a break.
They did a lot of things right on Sunday against the Philadelphia Stars. They tried a new quarterback. They were gifted an early lead by their defense. They even built themselves a double-digit advantage entering the fourth quarter.
Still, as has happened often throughout this inaugural USFL season, the Gamblers surrendered a lead late, this time letting the Stars rack up a stunning 22-0 advantage in the final quarter on the way to a 35-24 victory.
For the Gamblers (1-6), it was their sixth straight defeat, each one seemingly more gut-wrenching than the last. In Week 4, they lost on a desperation heave by New Orleans quarterback Kyle Sloter with 10 seconds left. In Weeks 5 and 6, they lost games as time expired, first to Pittsburgh, then to New Jersey.
On Sunday, they entered the fourth quarter with a 24-13 lead, only to see their drives in the final period end as follows:
— Missed 49-yard field-goal attempt
Meantime, the Stars got a 39-yard scoring pass from Case Cookus to Jordan Suell, a 3-yard scoring run by Darnell Holland and two field goals by Luis Aguilar — not to mention that safety — to turn a big Gamblers edge into a tight game, and then into a Philly runaway.
Philly brings the D
The Stars have been solid of late, winning three of their last four games. The only loss in that stretch was a 30-17 Week 5 defeat to Birmingham, which is a perfect 7-0. The Stars led that game 17-14 at the half, but like the rest of the USFL, were unable to stop the Stallions in the second half.
Philadelphia’s defense came up huge Sunday against Houston, causing a pair of fumbles and benefiting from a sweet interception by cornerback Channing Stribling, who nearly got a pick-six out of it, only to see it nullified by a penalty.
Stribling, a 27-year-old product of Michigan, leads the league with five interceptions despite playing in only five of his team’s seven games. He has received looks from several NFL teams in the past, and was on the Chargers’ practice squad in 2018.
Another big defensive play for Houston
Houston entered Week 7 tied with Birmingham for the league lead in turnover ratio, at plus-5. And the Gamblers started Sunday’s game with more of the same, when linebacker Donald Payne picked off a Cookus pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.
Defensive tackle Domenique Davis drilled Cookus on the play, causing the ball to pop up into the air and come down in Payne’s waiting arms.
Houston’s Donald Payne takes pick to the house
The Houston linebacker Donald Payne intercepts Case Cookus and takes it back for the touchdown for a quick 7-0 lead over the Philadelphia Stars.
Payne, who entered Week 7 leading the USFL in tackles, also has two sacks on the season. This was his first interception of the season and gave the Gamblers a 7-0 lead. He would notch a second interception later in the game.
The Gamblers gave quarterback Kenji Bahar his first real look at playing time on Sunday, and it was a bit of a struggle for the 24-year-old out of Monmouth.
On the surface, his numbers look pretty solid — Bahar completed 76.9% of his passes (10-for-13) for 101 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating was a solid 92.1.
But he also gave up two turnovers and both of them came in the fourth quarter. His pick to Stribling set Philadelphia up for an easy field goal and a 30-24 lead. And his fumble came on the first play of the ensuing possession when he was strip-sacked by Adam Rodriguez.
Four plays later, another field goal made it 33-24 and essentially iced the game.
Despite the late fade, it will be interesting to see if Bahar gets another look in Week 8. Thorson entered Sunday’s game fifth in the league in passing with 917 yards. But he’s completed only 56.2% of his passes and has thrown seven interceptions.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.
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