As the USFL season heads into Week 3, a critical game in the South Division between the Tampa Bay Bandits and Houston Gamblers will kick off the weekend. Both teams are 1-1, looking to rebound from tough losses, and need a victory to keep up with the undefeated Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers, who face each other Saturday night.
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Everything that could go wrong went that way for Tampa Bay last Sunday, as the Bandits were overwhelmed by New Orleans 34-3. Tampa Bay turned the football over three times and only generated 192 yards of offense. Jordan Ta'amu completed 8 of 18 passes for 62 yards with an interception, resulting in an unsightly 30.3 passer rating on the day. The defense didn’t have any answers for Kyle Sloter and the Breakers' offense, either, surrendering 374 yards and four touchdowns. It was disappointing to see the defense take a step back after limiting Pittsburgh to just a field goal in Week 1.
Houston, meanwhile, got things going a bit on offense last Saturday night in a 33-28 loss to the Birmingham Stallions. Mark Thompson rushed for 93 yards on 16 carries, including a 41-yard gain. Unfortunately, it was the three turnovers by quarterback Clayton Thorson and defensive issues that sealed the Gamblers' fate. Birmingham was able to possess the ball for almost 35 minutes and gain 391 yards of offense, despite turning it over twice. Looking ahead to this matchup, it will be important for head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff to build on the positives, like the running game, and remind his team about finishing games. Houston led Birmingham 18-13 at the half before allowing 20 points in the final two quarters.
Tampa Bay (1-1) at Houston (1-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, April 30 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Bandits -1
Three Things to Watch
1. What Tampa Bay offense will show up?
The Bandits have yet to truly take off on offense after two weeks of play. They have yet to go over 300 yards in a game. Turnovers have been a problem, with Jordan Ta'amu responsible for three of the five committed thus far. This is a recipe for disaster. Ta'amu needs more help from the running game, as Tampa Bay has totaled just 60 yards on the ground through two games. Only one other team (Philadephia, 37 rushing yards) has fared worse. So the first priority on Saturday should be to try and run the ball against a Houston team that has had its own defensive struggles.
2. Gamblers need to show a better hand on D
It's pretty simple, Houston needs to throw last week's defensive game film in the trash and start with a clean slate. Coordinator Tim Lewis will look to put pressure on Ta'amu in hopes of getting him off his spot and forcing him into some contested throws. Ta'amu has already been picked off three times and is completing just 56 percent of his attempts. The Gamblers also just need to get off of the field. Birmingham ran 64 plays against them last week, as the Stallions did pretty much whatever they wanted on the ground and through the air. If it wasn't for two takeaways, the damage on the scoreboard may have been worse. Houston has done a good job of forcing other teams into mistakes (five turnovers generated) and that needs to continue against a Tampa Bay team that enters with a minus-5 turnover margin. If they can't get a takeaway, the Gamblers at least need to make some plays behind the line of scrimmage — Ta'amu has only been sacked twice thus far — to keep the Bandits behind the chains and make them earn their points with long, sustained drives.
3. Bandits' D needs to bounce back
This also should be a great opportunity for Tampa Bay's defense to turn the page this week. Houston is second to last in the league in total offense at 229 yards per game, although the Gamblers are fourth in points (45). The problem has been this unit has yet to play a four-quarter game. Thorson has struggled with his accuracy, completing just 50 percent of his passes, and leads the USFL with four interceptions. Mark Thompson leads the league with 163 rushing yards, so the Bandits will need to handle their business up front and limit his effectiveness to try and force Thorson to beat them with his arm. Tampa Bay's secondary will be without safety Antonio Reed, who was suspended for this week after sitting on a player’s head following a block. Look for Thorson to potentially try and take advantage of Reed’s absence as he seeks to establish more of a connection with his receivers, including JoJo Ward (team-high seven receptions) and Isaiah Zuber (63 yds., 2 TDs).
One thing that is becoming abundantly clear after a couple of weeks is that there is a premium on quality quarterback play in the USFL. On paper, Ta'amu appears to be the best quarterback on the field in this game, so it's up to him to elevate his play and make things happen on Saturday afternoon. Thorson has a great opportunity to make a statement by cutting down on his mistakes and connecting with his receivers downfield. However, it will be Ta'amu and the Tampa Bay offense that will do just enough to win a close, hard-fought game to improve to 2-1 on the season.
Prediction: Bandits 19, Gamblers 17
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.