By Terrance Turner
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. The Houston Roughnecks defeated the St. Louis Battlehawks in a 28-24 win Sunday night at TDECU Stadium. The Roughnecks managed to win 28-24, despite missed tackles on defense and consistent conversion problems on offense.
The fireworks started almost immediately with a 40-yard return from Roughnecks cornerback Ajene Harris, and running back Nick Holley followed that with a first-down catch and run. The drive ended with a successful 44-yard field goal from kicker Sergio Castillo.
The Battlehawks took over and launched a scoring drive of their own, with running back Matt Jones plowing down the field to score a touchdown. Their two-point conversion attempt was no good. That gave Houston the ball back, and they added to their lead with another scoring drive. Quarterback P.J. Walker threw a 13-yard reception to Holley and a highlight-reel catch to receiver Kahlil Lewis before firing a bullet to wide receiver Cam Phillips for the touchdown. But once again, the conversion was no good. On the run, Walker dived and flipped into the end zone. But he landed with his lower body in the end zone and the ball on the other side of the goal line.
The score was 9-6 as the second quarter began. The Battlehawks prepared to answer with a score of their own. But Battlehawks QB Jordan Ta’amu was intercepted by Roughnecks cornerback Cody Brown. His 50-yard return went all the way to the one-yard line, setting up 1st and goal for the Roughnecks. On the very next play, running back James Butler ran in for the touchdown, making it 15-6. was followed by yet another failed two-point conversion. Walker fired a pass to wide receiver Kahlil Lewis, who dived across the goal line and slammed the ball down in the end zone. But the ball came out just as it hit the ground. Initially, the conversion was ruled successful, but it was overturned upon review.
After a 17-yard return, the Battlehawks’ drive stalled. On 4th and 2, St. Louis’ one-yard loss led to a turnover on downs. The Roughnecks took over and went 68 yards in just seven plays. Walker threw a 12-yard completion to Butler, and Holley continued to dazzle with a 20-yard pickup. The drive culminated in a 9-yard touchdown catch by Cam Phillips. That play helped Walker achieve an impressive statistic. In just two games, P.J. Walker has scored seven touchdowns — more than three XFL teams!
But the aftermath of that touchdown was anything but impressive. Phillips got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after taking his helmet off in celebration, and the Roughnecks’ 1-point conversion attempt was no good. St. Louis’ offense stalled on its resulting drive, and so did Houston’s. Neither team was able to score in the last few minutes, so the score remained 21-6 at halftime.
The second half opened with a 20-yard return courtesy of Battlehawks wide receiver Keith Mumphery. The ‘Hawks put together a 13-play, 72-yard scoring drive, highlighted by wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El. He brought the ‘Hawks to 1st and goal with a 23-yard catch-and-run, plowing his way to the one-yard line amid several missed tackles by the Roughnecks’ defense. Then he overcame two Houston defenders to tumble into the end zone. His TD brought the score to 21-12. The two-point conversion was no good — and neither was the Roughnecks’ next drive, which ended with Walker being sacked. (The ruling of a sack was later reversed to an incomplete pass.)
The ‘Hawks took over and scored again when Ta’amu ran in for a 4-yard touchdown. Houston got the ball back as the third quarter came to a close, but a promising drive fell apart. On 3rd down, Walker was tackled, flipped over on his back, got up and lobbed a far-flung pass to Phillips. It would’ve been spectacular if it had counted, but referees ruled that Walker was down.
The fourth quarter began with a 55-yard punt from kicker Austin Rehkow, who pinned the ball within the ‘Hawks’ 2-yard line.
After two false starts, it looked like the ‘Hawks would go three-and-out, giving Houston the ball back. That was exactly what the Roughnecks needed: with the score 21-18, they couldn’t afford to give up an already narrow lead. But after the penalties, the momentum shifted. The Battlehawks rallied, achieving three consecutive first downs (13 yards, 11 yards, and 14 yards, respectively.) In no time, they’d moved halfway down the field. It looked like they were going to score.
But out of nowhere, Ta’amu was intercepted by Roughnecks cornerback Jeremiah Johnson. He ran 64 yards to set up 1st and goal at the 1-yard line. Then P.J. Walker threw yet another TD pass to Cam Phillips, who scored his third touchdown of the game. Walker ran into the end zone for a one-point conversion, making the score 28-18.
The Roughnecks enjoyed a ten-point lead until after the two-minute warning. On 4th and 12 (!!!), the ‘Hawks somehow managed to score, with wide receiver L’Damian Washington running in for a TD. Their conversion attempt was no good, though, and the Roughnecks held on to win the game.
Johnson’s pivotal interception was cited as a game-changing play, but Johnson humbly downplayed his late-game heroics in a postgame press conference. “I really want to give credit to the D-line,” he said. “That was a big play, and I can only thank God for the opportunity to keep ballin’.”
Being a baller comes with some fringe benefits. Bud Light Seltzer is an official sponsor of the XFL. Many of the league’s players enjoyed the sponsored drinks after Sunday’s games: both the DC Defenders and the Dallas Renegades were shown shotgunning cans of seltzer in the locker room. During the postgame press conference, one reporter asked Johnson, “Were there any seltzers opened up in y’all’s locker room?”
“I haven’t seen any,” Johnson replied, smiling.
Meanwhile, in the XFL locker room:
After the game, I was preparing to leave the press box and walk down to the field when a tall, built blond walked in. It was Greg Olsen, the legendary tight end who made history in 2016 as the first TE with three consecutive seasons of 1,000 receiving yards. Olsen recently walked away from the Carolina Panthers after nearly nine years. Olsen is currently negotiating with the Bills, Redskins, and Seahawks, according to CBS Sports. Which made me wonder: why was he in Houston? It turns out that Olsen was doing color commentary for the XFL game on FOX. Despite battling an infection (the cause of his raspy voice), Olsen got rave reviews for his performance:
I rode the elevator downstairs with Olsen and a gaggle of others. I didn’t say anything to Olsen directly; I wanted to appear a serious journalist, not some starstruck fan. But as the elevator descended and the doors opened, I thought of all the Sunday afternoons I’ve spent watching the NFL on FOX (including numerous Panthers games). Was I really going to miss an opportunity to meet my first big-name NFL player?
I decided to break protocol. As we walked towards the exits, I approached and shook his hand.
“This is unprofessional, but I’ve loved watching you for years,” I said. “You’re one of my favorite Panthers, and I wish you all the best going forward.”
“That’s very nice of you. Thank you,” he replied, before walking out of TDECU Stadium. Will he walk away from professional football, too? Olsen is reportedly mulling whether to continue playing or pursue a career in broadcasting.
I spent the rest of the evening walking on air — which is probably how the Roughnecks feel after going 2-0. They will play the Seattle Dragons at 1 pm on Saturday, March 7.