Coming Undone: Roughnecks suffer second straight defeat, 37-26 to Defenders

Feb 8, 2020; Houston, TX, USA; General view of a Houston Roughnecks helmet during a XFL football game against the Los Angeles Wildcats at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Coming Undone: Roughnecks suffer second straight defeat, 37-26 to Defenders

It was the Houston’s ugliest game of the season, and not just in its on-field performance.

Offensive failures and consistent losses of composure conspired to send the Houston Roughnecks to their second straight defeat, 37-26 to the D.C. Defenders. D.C.’s 37 points were the most allowed by Houston this season.

Things started promisingly for Houston, as its second drive of the game resulted in an 8-play, 66-yard scoring drive over 4:32, capped off by Max Borghi’s 4-yard touchdown run. The 2-point conversion was successful, and the Roughnecks led 8-0 with 5:08 remaining in the first quarter. It would be six possessions before they scored again.

The Defenders, known for being the league’s top rushing team, brought a different strategy to the game. Despite entering the week leading the league in rushing and having nearly twice as many yards as the next closest team, the Defenders sought to take advantage of an undermanned Roughnecks defense missing two important starters. Linebacker Tim Ward is second in the XFL in both sacks (five) and tackles for loss (seven), but he was inactive for the game. Houston was also without star cornerback Sean Davis, who is usually assigned to the opposing team’s top receiver. Davis’ three interceptions are second-most in the league.

The Defenders went to the air early and often, and it paid off. Jordan Ta’amu had his best game of the season, going 19-for-31 for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Lucky Johnson also had a monster game, with five receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown. Davis would have most likely been assigned to Johnson.

Penalties were also a huge factor in this game, as Roughnecks players repeatedly lost composure. Houston was flagged 12 times for 102 yards in this contest, and some of the penalties were borne of pure frustration. Defensive lineman Jack Heflin was flagged 15 yards and ejected for a deliberate low blow to a Defenders player after a play had completed. Defensive back Ajene Harris was flagged 15 yards for squirting an official with a water bottle after a play. Defensive back Tavante Beckett was flagged 15 yards for putting his hands in an official’s face after a play. All of these penalties occurred in the third quarter, when the Defenders took a 26-8 lead with 2:08 remaining before the fourth.

Quarterback Brandon Silvers, meanwhile, struggled badly after Houston’s first scoring drive, and the Roughnecks’ offense gained only 20 yards in the second quarter. Silvers threw a critical pick-six with just 1:15 to go before halftime, which only made matters worse following D.C.’s previous touchdown drive. The defensive score gave the Defenders a 17-8 lead at the half.

After Silvers went 3-and-out on the Roughnecks first drive in the third quarter, Houston inserted Cole McDonald at quarterback. D.C. took a 26-8 lead with 2:08 left in the third quarter, but McDonald quickly found wide receiver Deontay Burnett behind the defense for an 85-yard touchdown to inject some life back into the Roughnecks.

With a tired and undermanned defense unable to stop the Defenders from scoring, head coach Wade Phillips stayed with McDonald, and his backup quarterback continued to make plays. He led a second consecutive scoring drive, which included an 18-yard run by McDonald and a 37-yard strike to Ben Putman. Moments later, Max Borghi rushed into the end zone from a yard away for his second touchdown of the game.

Following a 50-yard Defenders field goal, McDonald led his third straight touchdown drive, highlighted by a 30-yard pass to Travell Harris, an 18-yard connection with Burnett, and McDonald’s one-yard touchdown run.

Down 37-26, Houston went for a 4th-and-15 conversion to keep possession with 1:50 remaining, but its hook-and-ladder play failed.

Considering Silvers struggled for the second straight week and McDonald played extremely well, it will be worth watching to see if the Roughnecks make a quarterback change this week. Before the season started, Coach Phillips spoke about the close QB battle. McDonald finished 8-for-11 for 194 yards and a touchdown. He also ran six times for a team-high 37 yards and a touchdown. Silvers ended the game 10-for-17 for 111 yards and an interception.

The Roughnecks (4-2) will try to end their franchise’s first ever two-game losing streak Sunday, April 2, when they host the 4-2 St. Louis Battlehawks at TDECU Stadium. Game time is 1:00 p.m. CT.

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