By Terrance Turner
A new era has dawned in professional football.
The NFL season ended with last Sunday’s Super Bowl. But if you’re already suffering from football withdrawal, you’re in luck. Yesterday was opening day for the XFL, a pro football league founded by WWE legend Vince McMahon. His company Alpha Entertainment has created a league with slightly different rules than the NFL. (For one thing, kickoffs are vastly different. They begin at the 30-yard line, and players cannot move until the ball is touched by the returner or until 3 seconds after the ball hits the ground.) Also different: the number of games (it’s a 10-game season) and of teams (only eight). One of those teams, the Houston Roughnecks, went to 1-0 last night with a blowout win over the Los Angeles Wildcats.
The game took place at TDECU Stadium, where over 18,000 fans gathered Saturday afternoon. The Roughnecks scored almost immediately. After just three plays, Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw a 50-yard pass to wide receiver Cam Phillips for the touchdown. But the extra point attempt looked a lot different from the NFL’s. Under XFL rules, teams cannot kick for extra points. Instead, they must convert for 1 point (from the 2-yard line), 2 points (from the 5-yard line), or 3 points (from the 10).
The Roughnecks’ one-point attempt was stuffed by the Wildcats, who went on to score 14 unanswered points. Quarterback Charles Kanoff took off, running and diving into the end zone for the touchdown. He then threw a completed pass to receiver Jordan Smallwood for a two-point conversion. In the second quarter, Kanoff threw to Smallwood again for another touchdown.
With seven minutes left in the half, Walker tossed a TD pass to running back James Butler. Once again, however, Houston failed to make an extra-point conversion. That left the score 14-12. Los Angeles added to its lead with a 35-yard field goal by former NFL kicker Nick Novak. Down five points with only 1:26 left before halftime, Houston began its drive. Butler returned an L.A. punt deep inside Wildcat territory, setting up an eventual TD. Walker scrambled away from pressure, throwing a 39-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Sam Mobley.
The Wildcats had only a minute to respond. They drove down the field and were poised for a field goal. But a penalty flag cost them five yards and 10 seconds off the clock. That left them only one second to attempt a 29-yard field goal, which they couldn’t. Time expired just as they snapped the ball. The score was 18-17 at the half.
In the third quarter, Walker fired a 29-yard bullet to running back Nick Holley, who — incredibly — made the catch despite being covered by two Wildcat defenders.
That unbelievable play set up 1st and goal near the 10-yard line. That led to Walker throwing his fourth touchdown of the game — a short pass to wide receiver Kahlil Lewis. (Lewis also gave Houston its first successful two-point conversion when he slipped past defenders into the end zone on the next play.) It was 26-17 with nine minutes to go in the third quarter.
At the start of the fourth, kicker Sergio Castillo drilled a 44-yard field goal to extend the lead. The Wildcats then took over, but a pass to receiver Jalen Greene bounced off his hands and was intercepted by Roughnecks cornerback Deatrick Nichols. That pick set the stage for another score: Walker passed the ball to Butler, who ran in for the touchdown. Lewis caught a pass for the
two-point conversion. (He scored a total of 10 points — remarkable, given that
Lewis was seen throwing up on the field in the first quarter.)
The score was 37-17 with 9:55 remaining in the game. The Roughnecks regained the ball after a fruitless drive by the Wildcats and were poised to score. But on 3rd and 1, Walker’s pass was intercepted by safety Ladarius Riley. The Roughnecks were able to stop the Wildcats from scoring, though — just as they’d done the entire second half. The Houston Roughnecks won 37-17.
After the game, Houston players signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans. Lewis, despite his earlier illness, posed with a gaggle of young children (and adults) in several photos.
Nick Holley stayed for nearly an hour to sign autographs (on footballs, caps, and even arms, according to one spectator). WordPress won’t allow embedding of videos outside Instagram or YouTube, which explains the less-than-stellar video quality here:
“Edelman and I have the same record,” Holley told one fan. When questioned about this, he revealed that he and Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman both went to the same college: Kent State. “I used to play quarterback, too,” he said.
The Kent State Sports website confirms that Holley made his quarterback collegiate debut during the 2016 season. “Playing quarterback for the first time since his senior year of high school in 2012, Holley completed 19 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns,” the page read. “Holley was the first Kent State player since Julian Edelman in 2008 to rush for 100 yards and pass for 100 yards in the same game.” Holley is making his mark on professional football, too.
But the biggest star of the night was arguably quarterback P.J.Walker. “I thought it was a good night, offensively,” Walker told reporters in a postgame press conference. That was an understatement: Walker threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns (and only one interception) to help his team to a 20-point win. He has been named the team’s starting quarterback.