By Terrance Turner
March 9, 2020 (updated Nov. 15)
Despite three turnovers and a wildly controversial fourth quarter, the Houston Roughnecks survived Game 5 on Saturday afternoon to remain undefeated. The Roughnecks beat the Seattle Dragons 32-23 at TDECU Stadium yesterday. They remain the only unbeaten team in the XFL.
After a near-scoreless first quarter, the Seattle Dragons’ offense took off. After a fumble by the Roughnecks, Dragons quarterback B.J. Daniels led a 7-play, 18-yard, three-minute scoring drive. On 4th and goal at the one-yard line, Daniels ran in and scored the touchdown. The two-point conversion, however, was unsuccessful: a gaggle of Houston defenders prevented the Dragons from scoring.
Following an 18-yard kickoff return by cornerback Charles James II, the Roughnecks began their drive. The first quarter ended just as Houston running back Andre Williams achieved 1st down with a nine-yard carry. After the second quarter began, the drive stalled. A field goal by kicker Sergio Castillo was no good. After a near-fumble on first and 10, the Dragons recovered. Dragons running back Trey Williams scored the touchdown with a 17-yard scamper. This time, the two-point conversion was good: Daniels threw a successful pass to wide receiver Austin Proehl.
That made the score 14-0 — the largest deficit the Houston Roughnecks have ever faced. But they quickly cut the lead down. On 3rd and 1, Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker connected with wide receiver Nick Holley for a stunning 50-yard touchdown.
The Roughnecks decided to go for a three-point conversion but couldn’t make the play, so the score remained 14-6. After the Dragons went three and out, receiver Sam Mobley had a 16-yard return, which was negated by a holding penalty. But Mobley rebounded with a 42-yard catch.
Following the two-minute warning, a 14-yard play by wide receiver Blake Jackson took the Roughnecks to the one-yard line. A false start penalty moved them five yards back. Running back James Butler scored a one-yard TD run, jumping into the stands to celebrate. But the celebration was short-lived: the on-field ruling of a touchdown was reversed when referees said Butler was short of the goal line. Worse yet, Seattle Dragons player Godwin Igwebuike was injured on the play. He laid on the ground for several minutes but eventually was able to walk off the field.
On the very next play, Butler scored again:
This time, the touchdown was upheld. Walker connected with Holley for the successful two-point conversion. The Houston Roughnecks’ eight-play, 90-yard drive evened the score. The game was tied 14-14 at halftime.
The Dragons got the ball back to start the second half. On 3rd and 5, B.J. Daniels fell to the ground for a four-yard loss. Roughnecks linebacker Edmond Robinson was credited with the sack. Seattle settled for a field goal, which kicker Ernesto Lacayo nailed to make it 17-14.
They would add to that lead after a costly mistake by the Roughnecks. On 1st down, Walker was intercepted by Dragons cornerback Marko Myers, who returned the pick 52 yards. It was Walker who tripped Myers up to keep him from scoring. But Myers landed inside the one-yard line, which set up B.J. Daniels’ touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but Seattle still held a commanding 23-14 lead.
Walker rallied the Roughnecks with a four-play, 64-yard drive, highlighted by a dramatic 48-yard pass to Cam Phillips. That set up 1st and goal at the 10-yard line. Butler ran through Seattle defenders for his second touchdown of the day. The Roughnecks went for a three-point conversion in hopes of tying the game, but Walker’s pass was too high for Holley. Still, the Roughnecks had narrowed Seattle’s lead. They trailed 23-20.
The Dragons took over. Just when it seemed like they were headed for a three-and-out, a defensive pass interference call (on Houston) gave them an automatic first down. But they still failed to convert, as #97 Gabe Wright stuffed Daniels for a seven-yard loss. Seattle was forced to punt on 4th and 16. Then, a promising Roughnecks drive ended with another turnover. As Walker launched a pass to receiver Sam Mobley, Dragons safety Jordan Martin jumped up and grabbed the ball. He appeared to land out of bounds, but referees reversed their initial ruling to say that Martin had intercepted the ball.
Seattle was unable to convert the pick into any points. The end of that fruitless drive also marked the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Walker helmed another scoring drive that culminated in a 6-yard TD by Cam Phillips. The two-point conversion attempt was no good. But with nine minutes left, the Roughnecks had taken their first lead of the day, 26-23. The Dragons were unable to score any points on their next drive and punted on 4th down. With 3:33 remaining, Walker fired the ball to Cam Phillips for an 11-yard TD. Roughnecks went for 1 extra point, but running back Andre Williams was stopped in the backfield. However, the Roughnecks had scored 18 unanswered points and taken a 32-23 lead.
The game would end with two major controversies. On the Dragons’ drive, Daniels was running when he tumbled to the ground and disappeared inside a mass of red and white jerseys. A pileup ensued, with players stacked on top of each other for several minutes. During that time, referees threw two flags in the air. But the reason for the penalties remained unclear.
After what seemed like an eternity, referee Tra Blake provided an answer: “The ruling on the field is a fumble recovered by the defense. It’s Houston’s ball,” he said. “After the play, personal foul: #47 on the return team for Houston — for throwing a punch. He’s disqualified.”
What had happened? Linebacker DeMarquis Gates (#47) had stripped the ball from Daniels and then recovered the fumble. But then he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game for throwing a punch. Remarkably, Gates was signing autographs for fans mere moments after being disqualified. He was also interviewed. “What did you get ejected for?” the reporter asked. “To be honest, I don’t know,” Gates responded. “I just had to make a play.”
Once all of the dust settled, it was 1st and 10 for the Roughnecks with 1:58 left. A 12-yard pickup by Andre Williams was enough for a Roughnecks first down. On fourth down, P.J. Walker took a knee with two seconds remaining, and the clock ran out. After the game, the XFL issued a statement saying that the ball should’ve gone to the Dragons:
“Today’s Seattle Dragons-Houston Roughnecks game should not have ended as it did. Replays showed clearly that the knee of Houston quarterback P.J. Walker touched the field, rendering him ‘down’ and the fourth-down play officially completed, with approximately two seconds remaining on the clock – effectively turning the ball over to Seattle on downs. With a nine-point differential in the score, Seattle was denied an opportunity to tie the game. The XFL sincerely regrets this error.”
Walker, however, appears to have no regrets. Asked about the game’s three turnovers (including two picks), Walker took responsibility, but didn’t beat himself up: “In the beginning, with the three turnovers, it was just… it happens. It’s part of the game, you know? So things happen. You just got to bounce back from ‘em. Great players bounce back. Winners gonna always bounce back as well. And it is what it is,” Walker said in a postgame press conference.
During the press conference, Walker was joined by wide receivers Sam Mobley and Cam Phillips. They all emphasized a team-first mentality. “We stay consistent every day. We work really hard, I would say — for the most part — as a team. So we know what we’ve got in our locker room. We just go out there and do what we do,” Walker said during the conference.
Phillips also focused on the team. In response to a question about the game’s second half: “I just think we did a great job of sort of calming down, understanding that we just had to do our jobs better, just pay a little more attention to detail,” said Phillips. He added that “it resulted in, you know, a 32-9 run to finish the game after that point. So not just the offense, the defense picked it up as well, and props — shout out to the whole team.”
“It’s a team thing,” added Sam Mobley. “I think we all have faith in each other as a team, and we have each other’s backs, whether we’re up or down. And just us having each other’s back helped us get to the finish and come back.”
The press conference video is presented below:
During the press conference, Phillips was asked about defensive coverage. His answer gave props to his teammates: “Sam had a great game. Nick Holley, you know, had another great game — made a few big catches. Like I said, we just trust in each other, man. We talk all the time, laugh all the time, so we understand that that camaraderie and sort of brotherhood is key — especially on offense.”
Brotherhood was also on the mind on running back James Butler, whom I interviewed in the locker room. He credited the offensive line for his stellar performance. “The O-line was going crazy,” he said. He also noted the shift in momentum after halftime. “We really came alive in that second half,” Butler said. “We know how good we can be. We’re still putting pieces together, still trying to play a complete game. But yeah, it’s a brotherhood in this locker room.”
While interviewing Butler, I took notice of a man walking towards the showers and asked who it was. He revealed that it was fellow running back Andre Williams, whom I interviewed next. Williams had a breakout game, with 10 carries for 54 yards. I asked him what was the key to his performance; before answering, he reached over and grabbed a small infant. It was his one-year-old son, Ka’el, whom Williams held as he talked.
Williams answered: “I just try to stay level-headed — don’t get too high, don’t get too low, stay in the game. You know, it was a great team win — on both sides of the ball. All three phases, we played well enough to win.” Our interview was crashed by Roughnecks wide receiver Jalen Saunders, who spent the XFL season on injured reserve. (He was later signed by the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks in April, but opted out after the pandemic began.)
I also asked Williams why the Roughnecks don’t have a tight end. “‘Cause we don’t play that kind of offense,” he replied. “We play with four wides — five wides, sometimes. That’s just the way we shoot. That’s just how it works.” He acknowledged that most teams around the league don’t utilize that kind of offensive scheme: “That’s one of the things that make us different.”
Are player formations one of the things that distinguish the XFL from the NFL? “Nah, not necessarily,” Williams answered. “I think it’s more of rules — rule changes that make it a little bit different. Not so much the schemes that the teams are using. ‘Cause there’s only so many configurations with the Xs and Os.“
Seeing Williams with his baby son provided a glimpse into who these players are off the field. On the field, they’re hidden by helmets and swathed in protective gear. But once they walk off, they are sons, brothers, fathers. We sometimes see players with their families after the game. But when was the last time you saw a football player holding his child during a locker-room interview?
“Football is family,” says a 2016 NFL advertising campaign. But a similar ethos pervades the XFL. My talk with Williams was a reminder of that. For all the talk about brotherhood, many of these players have also experienced fatherhood.
Speaking of brotherhood, wide receiver Nick Holley was outside signing autographs for fans during the press conference. (His twin brother Nate Holley, who played in the CFL before joining the Miami Dolphins this offseason, was also in attendance. The two both landed on the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad in 2018.) I was fortunate enough to interview Nick Holley after the game.
What was the key to his terrific performance? “First and foremostly, I give glory to God — it’s the big man upstairs. And after that, it’s just preparation,” he said. Like Butler, Holley also felt that despite the 5-0 start, the team could still improve — “we haven’t scratched our surface yet. We still haven’t put a complete game together and played up to our potential.” Butler had also mentioned the idea of a “complete game”. What does that mean for Holley? He answered: “No mistakes on offense, no mistakes on defense, and superior special teams.” The interview is embedded below.