Two teams looking to get back on the winning track will wrap up the USFL's Week 8 slate on Sunday as the Houston Gamblers and Tampa Bay Bandits get together for the second time this season. The Bandits escaped with a 27-26 victory over the Gamblers back in Week 3.
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Houston (1-6) lost another tough one last week, this time falling 35-24 to the Philadelphia Stars. Once again, the Gamblers hung tough and led by 11 points entering the fourth quarter when the Stars exploded for 22 points in the final frame. Houston managed just 199 total yards on offense and also turned the ball over three times. The Gamblers have lost six in a row.
Tampa Bay (3-4) also had its chances against New Jersey but failed to finish drives and lost 20-13 to the Generals last Saturday. The Bandits' offense didn't score a touchdown on three trips into the red zone, which spoiled an otherwise strong defensive effort against New Jersey's balanced attack. Sitting two games behind New Orleans for second in the South Division with just three left to play, Tampa Bay now finds itself in must-win territory.
Tampa Bay (3-4) at Houston (1-6)
Kickoff: Sunday, June 5 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Bandits -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bandits need to steal some points
Tampa Bay is fifth in the USFL in total offense at 278.3 yards per game but second to last in scoring at 17.9 points per game. A fast start would go a long way toward ending this two-game losing streak, especially considering the Bandits spotted Houston a 23-14 halftime lead in the first meeting. The Gamblers are struggling through a six-game losing streak and rank last in the league in both total offense (247.1 ypg) and total defense (367.1 ypg), so Tampa Bay must take advantage. Bandits quarterback Jordan Ta'amu ranks second in the league in passing yards (1,404) and is tied for the lead with 10 touchdown passes, but he's also tossed eight interceptions. Ta'amu needs to make better decisions when he drops back to pass but can't be afraid to try and find Derrick Dillon or Rashard Davis downfield to put Houston's defense on its heels. But this offense must avoid is turnovers, as you don’t want to give a downtrodden team like Houston a confidence boost.
2. Houston's mindset
We are going to learn a lot about the pride that lies within this football team. Despite missing the playoffs, these players for Houston are still professionals who have hopes of getting a shot with an NFL team later this summer. That is something that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff can use to try and motivate his players. Even though the Gamblers have lost six in a row, only one has been by more than seven points. Included in this stretch is the Week 3 loss to Tampa Bay when Houston couldn't protest a 23-14 halftime lead. Expect Sumlin to be aggressive with his play-calling on offense as quarterbacks Clayton Thorson and Kenji Bahar will likely both get opportunities. On defense, the Gamblers need to continue to attack since they lead the league in takeaways (16 total) and also have done a good job at getting to the other team's quarterback (15 sacks). Ta'amu is no stranger to turning it over either.
3. Tampa Bay defense
While the Bandits have fared better statistically compared to Houston, their defense has still had its own issues. For one, Tampa Bay has given up the second-most points (21.7 per game). Part of the problem has been an inability to create turnovers. The Bandits have just three on the season. Either way, Sunday's game presents a golden opportunity for the defense to put together a strong effort and build some momentum for the stretch run. Houston has the least productive offense in the USFL and enters this game with uncertainty at quarterback. Thorson had a strong game against the Gamblers in the first meeting, throwing for 240 yards, but he may share snaps under center with Bahar, making it harder for the offense to get into a rhythm. Tampa Bay needs to take advantage and go on the attack, forcing Houston to earn its yards and limiting the Gamblers to field goals anytime they get into scoring position.
Tampa Bay has more to play for, so motivation should not be an issue on Sunday. As it has done pretty much all season, Houston will hang around and keep things close well into the second half. But the Bandits have more certainty at quarterback and Ta'amu will make enough plays and limit the self-inflicted mistakes to get his team back to .500 and keep Tampa Bay's playoff hopes alive.
Prediction: Bandits 25, Gamblers 23
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.