Feb 26, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Roughnecks defensive back Ajene Harris (3) celebrates his interception against the Arlington Renegades in the first quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

DEPTH DRILLERS: Backups, Defense key Roughnecks 25-9 win over Renegades

In a preview of next week’s playoff game, Arlington looked outclassed by Houston.

Behind a highly efficient game from backup quarterback Cole McDonald and the first 100+ yard rushing game from fourth-string RB Jeremy Cox, the Houston Roughnecks ended the regular season in commanding fashion defeating the Arlington Renegades 25-9 at Choctaw Stadium.

The Roughnecks used a strong ground game, accurate passing, and their trademark opportunistic defense to dismantle their division rivals one week before they will meet in the divisional round of the XFL playoffs.

While Arlington played its starting quarterback Luis Perez the entire game, Houston played backup Cole McDonald for most of the game, spelling him occasionally with third-stringer Kaleb Eleby, who got his first playing time of the season.

McDonald was 10-for-11 in the game for 120 yards and an interception. He also carried the ball eight times for 66 yards and a score. McDonald’s performance redeemed him after he struggled in his last start against St. Louis. McDonald’s decisions were much faster, his throws crisper, and the threat of the run was more prevalent in the Roughnecks’ game plan this week. Houston utilized the threat of the quarterback much better with RPOs than they had against the Battlehawks in McDonald’s previous start.

Houston also sat their top three running backs, with Max Borghi and Brycen Alleyne not getting any carries and Dejoun Lee inactive with injury. Jeremy Cox was the only running back to take a carry, and he looked like a starter.

Using power and speed, running over defenders and gaining consistent yards after contact, Cox bullied the Renegades’ defense for 120 yards in the game, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. It was the first time this season a Roughnecks back had eclipsed 100 yards in a game. He also had a 45-yard touchdown called back after Renegades head coach Bob Stoops challenged that a wide receiver downfield was holding. It cost him 35 yards and a second score. Cox entered the game with one carry for one yard on the season.

Once again, the Roughnecks’ defense proved opportunistic. A deflected pass by Ajene Harris was intercepted by Tavante Beckett, who returned it for a 45-yard touchdown. It was the fifth defensive score for the Roughnecks this season, most in the XFL. It was their first interception return for a touchdown this year. Houston also finished with a pair of sacks and seven tackles for loss.

Houston’s defense finished with 35 sacks this season, tops in the XFL. They also had 58 tackles for loss, second in the XFL.

Houston held the Renegades offense to three field goals, including a 56-yard kick by Renegades PK Taylor Russolino that just snuck over the crossbar.

Houston outgained Arlington 341 to 245. In fact, the only part of the game that Houston struggled in was penalties. Houston was flagged 10 times in the game, while the Renegades were whistled just twice.

While this game didn’t technically mean anything, as both teams had already locked in their playoff positions, Houston controlled this game with relative ease and with mostly backups at quarterback, running back, and their top pass rushers saw very limited time as well.

If the purpose of the game was to send a message to the Renegades that they aren’t in Houston’s class, that message was delivered with conviction. Houston appeared to easily be the better of the two teams.

Houston swept the Renegades in the season series and swept all games in the XFL South against all opponents, as they finish the season 7-3.

Also of note, Houston is getting healthy at the right time. The team was able to rest starting quarterback Brandon Silvers, who has battled an arm injury in the second half that cost him a game. Running back Max Borghi has been beat up as well, and he got a day off. On defense, Tim Ward finally returned to the lineup and saw limited action. Ward is the team’s second-best pass rusher and was second in the XFL in sacks when he went down with injury. He is a huge presence on the defense and an impact player that the Roughnecks will be happy to have back next week when the playoffs begin.

Houston’s three-game losing streak in the middle of the season coincided with a rash of injuries. As the team has gotten healthier, they have looked more like the team that played dominant football the first four weeks of the season, with this Week 10 game being their strongest game in six weeks.

The Roughnecks will host the Renegades Sunday, April 30, at 6 p.m. CT at TDECU Stadium in Houston in the divisional round of the playoffs. The winner will play for the XFL Championship Saturday, May 13, at 7 p.m. CT at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

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