Bandits keep playoff hopes alive with win over Gamblers
By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Leave it to truth-teller Todd Haley to provide the unvarnished version of how his team played.
"Thankfully, there are no style points for how you win a football game," Haley said. "Because it was not pretty in a lot of different areas."
Yep, Haley’s right. And while Canton might not request the game film for this one, Tampa Bay’s grimy, 13-3 win over the Houston Gamblers on Sunday evening at Legion Field keeps open the possibility of his team playing there in the postseason.
At 4-4 after Sunday’s victory, the Bandits will reach the playoffs if they win their next two games.
The New Orleans Breakers (5-3) can clinch the postseason berth and a trip to Canton for themselves with a win over Tampa Bay next week.
The Breakers manhandled the Bandits 34-3 back in Week 2, but Haley expects a more competitive game this time around.
"I’m grateful that we get the opportunity to play a meaningful game against a team that really kicked our pants the first time around," Haley said. "But it is a meaningful game, and we’ve got a lot more to be able to study and prepare for."
Tampa Bay quarterback Jordan Ta’amu wasn’t his best self Sunday, but he did a good enough job of managing the game.
Ta’amu threw for just 98 yards on 12-for-21 passing, with one touchdown and an interception.
Haley took responsibility for Ta’amu’s interception in the fourth quarter, saying he should have run the ball to keep the chains moving — although Ta’amu’s offering bounced off the hands of receiver Rashard Davis.
"He did enough for us to win, and that’s the key," Haley said. "He’s a competitive guy who’s into it, ran his team today and got us the victory."
The Gamblers were playing without quarterback Clayton Thorson, who’s done for the year due to injury, as well as starting running back Mark Thompson and No. 1 receiver Isaiah Zuber. So, that would explain the Gamblers not reaching the end zone and finishing with 214 total yards of offense.
The Bandits didn’t do much better, with just 244 total yards.
Houston’s offense never even reached the red zone, and the Gamblers' only score came on a 44-yard field goal by Nick Vogel after the opening drive of the second half.
Making his first start, quarterback Kenji Bahar was mostly ineffective, completing 19 of 34 passes for 159 yards, with no touchdown passes and an interception. Bahar was sacked four times.
Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said he didn’t run Bahar more because of lack of depth at quarterback, not wanting to risk putting the athletic signal-caller in harm’s way.
Tampa Bay edge rusher Mike Scott, who finished with two sacks, said he had one goal in mind facing someone as green as Bahar for the first time — make him feel you.
"We wanted to hit him as hard as we can," Scott said. "Put nothing but pressure on him and make sure he feels us at all times."
Vogel executes perfect onside kick
Yes, kickers are football players, too.
Vogel showed that by recovering his own onside kick after Houston’s first score of the game early in the third quarter.
Unfortunately, the Bandits failed to get a first down and had to punt back to Tampa Bay.
Sumlin said special teams coach Greg McMahan saw a chance for the onside kick to work during film study earlier this week.
"We talked about it on Monday or Tuesday of this week that if the opportunity came, we were going to run it and do it," Sumlin said. "And we executed it."
Haley curiously chose to challenge the onside kick even though it went 15 yards — five yards more than needed for the kickoff team to legally recover the ball.
"It was maybe one of my most embarrassing moments in my coaching career," Haley said. "I heard a lot of people talking over the headset, and when I looked up, I didn’t factor in that it had gone 15 instead of 10 yards. But the defense bailed me out."
Chris Odom, USFL sack leader
Chris Odom is a problem.
Tampa Bay tried several ways to account for the talented Houston edge rusher, but nothing really worked. Odom finished with three sacks and now has a USFL-leading 11 on the season.
Odom also totaled five combined tackles, including a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble.
Sumlin said it should be no surprise that Odom is an effective pass rusher; he attended the same high school as Cleveland Browns sack specialist Myles Garrett — Martin High School in Arlington, Texas.
At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Odom has a potent combination of excellent get off, good body lean and a rangy body type that gives offensive linemen fits, according to Sumlin.
"He and Donald Payne are elite players in this league," Sumlin said. "Those two guys show that week in and week out. And Chris has been the same player from a defensive standpoint with his ability to create plays and disrupt plays. Chris Odom is as good as there is in this league."
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than 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 at @eric_d_williams.