Feb 18, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Roughnecks quarterback Cole McDonald (14) rushes for a touchdown against the Orlando Guardians in the fourth quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Game Preview: St. Louis Battlehawks at Houston Roughnecks
St. Louis Battlehawks (4-2) at Houston Roughnecks (4-2)
Game Time: Sunday, April 2, 1 p.m. CT
What’s at stake: The Roughnecks look to halt their two-game slide and maintain control of the XFL South. At 4-2, Houston is essentially two games ahead of 3-4 Arlington, as they have a game in hand and won the first meeting between the teams.
The Roughnecks need to get their offense back on track with starting quarterback Brandon Silvers struggling each of the past two weeks. Backup Cole McDonald came on in relief of Silvers last week and led three touchdown drives to make the score respectable in a game the Roughnecks were thoroughly handled.
The Battlehawks are in a much tougher battle in their division as, at 4-2, they are two games behind undefeated D.C. and half a game behind 5-2 Seattle. The Sea Dragons were victorious over Arlington Thursday night, 24-15. Both teams ahead of St. Louis in the XFL North have victories over the Roughnecks this season.
When the Roughnecks have the ball: There have been some rumors that Cole McDonald could supplant Brandon Silvers as quarterback this week, but nothing verifiable. McDonald brings a different element to the offense, as he is an extremely mobile quarterback who can and will run at any time. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he’s big enough to take on most linebackers, let alone defensive backs. He has also shown the ability to connect on deep passes, as he did last week. However, he is not as adept a pocket passer overall as Silvers.
Silvers has struggled badly the last two weeks, and his lack of arm strength has hurt him in several instances where he was unable to make specific open throws, or specific tight window throws. McDonald’s ability to be a threat with his legs seemed to inject life into the offense last week, and a change could be forthcoming.
Deontay Burnett was the biggest beneficiary of McDonald’s passing as the deep threat connected with the quarterback for multiple big gains and a touchdown. With McDonald in the game, the Roughnecks could also employ more RPOs, which could lead to more carries for Max Borghi and Dejoun Lee.
When the Battlehawks have the ball: Former three-time National Champion A.J. McCarron has been the best quarterback in the XFL this season. He is second in yards (1,322) and first in completion percentage (67.5%) among all players with at least 20 attempts. He also leads the league with 14 touchdowns. Battlehawks offensive coordinator Bruce Gradkowski has been impressed with McCarron’s mobility, noting his ability to extend plays has made a huge impact on their offense. Now 32, McCarron’s last appearance in the NFL came in Week 2 of the 2021 preseason with the Falcons, in a game where he suffered a torn ACL.
A former fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hakeem Butler has been McCarron’s primary receiver. His 35 receptions are second in the XFL, and he is fifth with 372 yards receiving. He has scored four times. On the other side is former NFL receiver Darrius Shepherd (27 rec, 270 yds, 3 TD), forming a strong 1-2 punch on the outside. Brian Hill is the team’s top rusher, second in the XFL with 317 yards. He averages 5.1 yards per carry as well.
Key Roughnecks to Watch:
CB Sean Davis: Davis missed last week’s game and is listed on the injury report with a hand injury. However, he is listed as probable for Sunday’s game. He was sorely missed by the team last week, as Davis usually draws the opponent’s top receiver. Davis would likely draw Hakeem Butler, should he play. Davis is third with three interceptions and had another interception reversed on maybe the most brutal officiating call in the XFL this season. Davis’ availability impacts the coverage greatly.
LB Tim Ward: Ward is on the injury report with a shoulder injury and was listed as a limited participant in practice the past two days. He is listed as questionable for Sunday. Ward is a huge part of the Roughneck pass rush, as he is second in the XFL in both sacks with five and tackles for loss with seven. Only teammate Trent Harris (6 sacks, 9 TFL) has more. Ward and Harris have shown to be an unstoppable duo on the field together, but after Harris missed Week 5, Ward missed Week 6, and the pass rush hasn’t been as effective. If Ward can play, he will make an important impact for Houston, as they will need to get pressure on McCarron.
WR Deontay Burnett: Burnett had a big Week 1, but has been strangely quiet since until Cole McDonald came on in relief last week. Burnett is a burner who can get behind the defense, and Houston needs to get him the ball more often. Burnett can be a big impact player, as he showed both Week 1 and Week 6. With Jontre Kirklin out for the season, he needs to get more targets and more opportunities.
QB Cole McDonald: McDonald came on in relief of Silvers last week and energized the offense, leading three touchdown drives in a row late. Even if he doesn’t start, he always has sub-packages designed for him. Expect to see more of McDonald even if he doesn’t start, perhaps even a full-time share at quarterback. His impact on the offense last week cannot be understated, and Houston needs to get the offense back on track. The offense runs a bit differently with McDonald, as the Roughnecks would go more RPO than pure Air Raid, but his effectiveness is what will be the determining factor.
The Bottom Line: St. Louis enters the game as the more desperate team, so it will be important for the Roughnecks to match their intensity early. Houston’s defense has been their bread and butter, and they will need to get pressure and force turnovers as they have all season to win this game.
Houston’s offense is a bit of a question mark right now, with some uncertainly at the quarterback position. St. Louis’ only two losses have both come to undefeated D.C., and both were one-score games. The Battlehawks have allowed the second-fewest points so far this season (112), one fewer than Houston.
This projects as a hard-fought game with high energy and emotion. The Roughnecks will need to be on top of their game to come out with a victory against a tough St. Louis team with a significant advantage at quarterback. Don’t be surprised if this one-score game hanging in the balance late.