By Terrance Turner
The Houston Roughnecks survived a spirited effort by the Tampa Bay Vipers to remain undefeated on Saturday. In their first away game ever, the Roughnecks held on to beat the Vipers 34-27.
The game was held in Tampa, Florida, and the home team got out to an early lead with a field goal that made the score 3-0. But Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker threw to wide receiver Cam Phillips, who took off for an 84-yard touchdown run. After that, Houston made its first successful three-point conversion, with Walker hitting receiver Sam Mobley for a 9-3 lead.
But Tampa Bay answered in convincing fashion. Head coach Marc Trestman replaced quarterback Taylor Cornelius with Quinton Flowers, a former USF standout. Flowers fired a pass to #17 for a huge gain. That yardage was enhanced by an unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Houston defense. That set up their touchdown, followed by a successful one-point play. The Vipers took the lead, 10-9. It was their first offensive touchdown all season, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
On their drive, the Roughnecks struck back. Walker dropped a snap, picked the ball up, and ran into the end zone for the touchdown. This time, the three-point conversion was unsuccessful. But Houston regained the lead, 15-10.
After Tampa Bay went three and out on the next series, Flowers was replaced by Cornelius, and didn’t play another down. After Tampa Bay failed to score any points, the Roughnecks got the ball back. Kicker Sergio Castillo made a 28-yard field goal to make it 18-10.
Once again, however, defensive struggles opened the door for the opponent’s offense. Cornelius launched a pass to running back De’veon Smith, whom Roughnecks defenders struggled to tackle. Another Tampa Bay player ran up and pushed all three players toward the 1-yard line. That set up 1st and goal. Cornelius ran in for the touchdown, and the Vipers added a two-point conversion just as the clock ran out. Both teams were tied 18-18 at halftime.
In the second half, Walker made a deep pass to wide receiver Sammie Coates, which was incomplete. But Coates’ defender was flagged for defensive pass interference. That penalty moved the chains dramatically. It also led to a 24-yard touchdown courtesy of Cam Phillips. And the two-point play was good: running back James Butler dashed into the end zone to make it 26-18. After a fruitless drive, Tampa Bay kicker Jake Schum punted the ball to the Roughnecks. But their drive ended with a 49-yard field goal attempt — which Castillo missed!
The Roughnecks would pay dearly for that mistake. On 4th down, Tampa Bay escaped the Houston defense to go 24 yards. Then the quarterback fired a pass to #81 Dan Williams for the touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. As the third quarter drew to a close, the Roughnecks maintained a slim lead, 26-24.
The fourth quarter began, and the Vipers embarked on another drive. Early in the quarter, the Tampa Bay kicker Andrew Franks nailed a 43-yard field goal to add three more points and take the lead. The Vipers led Houston 27-26.
Down by one with 12:51 remaining, the Roughnecks needed to score. P.J. Walker and Cam Phillips worked their usual magic, combining for a 17-yard TD. (For the second game in a row, Cam Phillips finished with three touchdowns.) Then Walker threw a dart to running back Nick Holley for the two-point conversion. It was 34-27, with Houston back on top.
That lead was in danger as the fourth quarter wound down. The Vipers powered their way to the two-yard line on 1st and goal, all but assuring that they would win. But then the unthinkable happened. With the game practically theirs, Tampa Bay had four opportunities to score — but they didn’t. On 4th and goal, the Vipers failed to convert. They would eventually get the ball back after a short drive by Houston, but Cornelius’ pass was intercepted by Roughnecks linebacker De’Marquis Gates with 1:22 left.
Fans booed Cornelius (and his team) as Walker raised his hands in victory. “It’s over. It’s over!” he proclaimed. He was right. Despite a surging Viper offense and crowd noise from 18,000 fans in Raymond James Stadium, the Houston Roughnecks won, 34-27. Walker now has the distinction of leading the XFL with 11 touchdowns — more than any other team in the league.