week 7 of USFL will conclude on Sunday night when the Philadelphia Stars and Houston Gamblers go head-to-head in a game between two teams who have enjoyed an eventful season so far.
Related: Week 7 picks for each USFL game
Philadelphia (3-3) picked up an important win on their way to the playoffs, beating Tampa Bay 35-28 last week. The win cemented the Stars’ position as the second-placed team in the North Division and, more importantly, gave them a two-game, four-game lead over Michigan and Pittsburgh. The defense was opportunistic, forcing the bandits to commit three turnovers. Philadelphia was clearly beaten (263 yards vs. 411 yards) and lost possession battle time (25:40 to 34:20) but still made 35 points on the scoreboard and clinched the W.
Houston (1-5) did some good things against New Jersey but again fell short in a 26-25 loss to the Generals. The Gamblers have now lost five in a row. In the loss, Clayton Thorson had one of his best performances, throwing the football and completing 15 of 19 passes for 171 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Tomasi Laulile also had a 59-yard fumble return for a touchdown that gave Houston a 25-20 lead at 6:03 in the fourth quarter. But New Jersey got the ball alone 20 with 5:42 left and ran 15 games with quarterback Luis Perez sneaking him in fourth and goal from just outside the endzone in the last game of the game to walk away with a win.
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Philadelphia (3-3) at Houston (1-5)
Kicking off: Sunday, May 29 at 6 p.m. ET
Where: Protection Stadium (Birmingham, Alabama)
Spread: stars -4
Three things to see
1. The stars’ offense must shine brightly on Sunday
Although Philadelphia won last week, the win wasn’t easy. The Stars’ defense was on the field more than half the game against Tampa Bay, so it would be a good place to start if Philadelphia tried to flip the script this week. That starts with quarterback Case Cookus. Cookus started in place of an injured Bryan Scott and went just 11-to-20 for 73 yards against the Bandits last week. He threw two touchdown passes and has just one interception so far, but he needs to be precise with the football and find that big finish to keep the chains moving. Matt Colburn II certainly did his part last week, exploding for 140 yards and three touchdowns with just 18 carries. If he can keep this up, Cookus might not need to throw as many passes.
2. Player defense needs to get better in Hold’em games
Houston has won just once this season and is a big reason the defense has given up too many yards and too many points, especially late in games. The Gamblers rank last in the USFL in both total defense (375.8 ypg) and goal defense (22.7 ppg). When you combine that with an offense that’s on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to yards per game (255.2), you start to see the problem. Even so, all of Houston’s losses were seven points or less, and three of them were decided by a single point. But that doesn’t mean everything was bad on defense. Chris Odom leads the league with eight sacks and Donald Payne is the leading tackler (76). The Gamblers are also No. 1 in takeaways at 14 and tied for the championship lead with a plus-five turnover margin. However, part of that statistical production is due to the defense being on the field for so long, including more than 40 minutes against New Jersey last week. This is something that needs to change if Houston is to snag this extended loss slide.
3. Philadelphia’s D also needs to strengthen
Statistically, the Stars are just ahead of Houston in yards (373.8) and points (22.2) per game. They’re also about to be sacked (15 vs. Gamblers’ 16), so putting pressure on Thorson will be a good start. Adam Rodriguez leads the defense with four sacks while Freedom Akinmoladun and Jordan Moore have two each. Thorson has thrown seven league-level interceptions (level with New Orleans’ Kyle Sloter) despite only being sacked twice, so it doesn’t take pressure to force him to make an error. Philadelphia has 12 takeaways, including eight picks, in six games, the most in the USFL.
Philadelphia is at .500 and still very much alive for a playoff spot, while Houston has lost five in a row, most of them in heartbreaking ways. Both defenses had their issues, as was evident last week, but the Stars were far more consistent when they had the ball. The Gamblers will do what they’ve been doing all season – hanging around, keeping things close just to avoid getting on the key game, or stopping when it matters most. This game can be sloppy at times thanks to two opportunistic defenses, but in the end watch out for Philadelphia to earn the win to improve to 4-3 on the season.
Prediction: Stars 26, Players 23
– Written by Scott Whittum who is part of the Contributor Network.