Ground and Pound: Defense, run game key Roughnecks’ 28-21 victory over Vipers

Feb 18, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Roughnecks running back Max Borghi (22) breaks a tackle by Orlando Guardian linebacker Terrance Smith (8) in the fourth quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Ground and Pound: Defense, run game key Roughnecks’ 28-21 victory over Vipers

With the victory, the Houston Roughnecks claimed the XFL South and secured a home playoff game.

The Roughnecks’ offense struggled for most of the first three quarters, but an opportunistic defense and late run-game success paved the way for Houston to hold off Vegas 28-21 and earn its first XFL Division title.

The final score is not indicative of Houston’s offensive struggles through the first 43 minutes of play.

Houston’s offense gained a total of 78 yards before halftime and did not score an offensive point until there was 1:15 remaining in the third quarter. Quarterback Brandon Silvers continued to play poorly, finishing 16-of-27 for only 105 yards and two interceptions. Silvers misfired on throws to open receivers all afternoon. He still seems to be struggling with the arm injury that caused him to miss a game earlier in the season. As a result, his passes lack velocity and he is needing to muscle up on throws into tight windows or downfield.

Silvers missed badly on a pass to Deontay Burnett on the first Roughnecks drive of the game, and the pass hit Vipers defensive back Keylon Kennedy in the numbers at the Vegas 16-yard line. with Kennedy returning it 9 yards to the Vegas 25-yard line. That interception derailed a Roughnecks drive that had already gained 54 yards and put them in position to score first. Instead, Vegas scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.

Houston’s only first half points came when Roughnecks linebacker Deandre Johnson sacked Vipers quarterback Jalan McClendon, knocking the ball out. Linebacker Tavante Beckett recovered the ball and bolted 35 yards for the score. Houston trailed 12-6 at the break.

Silvers’ second interception came on Houston’s first possession of the second half when he again missed Burnett badly. Silvers significantly under-threw the pass to Burnett down the sideline near the end zone. Kennedy, who had underneath coverage and had been beaten deep, snatched the under-thrown pass for his second interception of the day at the Vegas 4-yard line and returned it to the Vegas 13-yard line.

This time, Silvers’ defense had his back.

Following a short completion, Roughnecks defensive back Ajene Harris took the football right out of the hands of Vipers wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Harris sprinted 12 yards to the end zone for Houston’s second defensive score of the game, giving the Roughnecks their first lead of the game at 13-12.

Houston had a lead – and momentum – despite scoring zero offensive points.

The Roughnecks’ defense held the Vipers to zero yards on their next drive, forcing them to punt from their own 26. Despite a solid 48-yard punt by Michael Carrizosa, the Roughnecks earned excellent field position following a Travell Harris’ 25-yard return to the Vegas 49-yard line.

Houston then turned to its ground game. Max Borghi ripped off a 21-yard run on the drive, and then finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. The Roughnecks ran for 28 of their 49 yards on the drive, which put the Roughnecks ahead 19-12 with 1:15 remaining in the third quarter.

After a 53-yard field goal by Vipers kicker Sam Sloman narrowed Houston’s lead to 19-15, the Roughnecks resumed their ground attack.

Max Borghi broke loose for a 36-yard run to the Vegas 14-yard line. On the next play, Brycen Alleyne sprinted into the end zone and capped off his run with a dive over the goal line to extend Houston’s lead to 25-15 with 8:51 remaining.

On its next drive, Vegas was the beneficiary of a 28-yard defensive pass interference call against Roughnecks backup corner David Tolentino. Moments later, Vipers running back John Lovett broke free down the sideline for a 25-yard touchdown run, closing the gap to 25-21 with 6:23 to go.

Houston then chewed up 4:34 of clock on its next drive, running 10 plays, covering 42 yards, and relying exclusively on its ground game. Austin Jones’ 28-yard field goal extended the Roughnecks’ lead back to seven with just 1:49 remaining.

Vegas managed a few quick chunk plays to work its way into the red zone, but a pair of passes from the Houston 18-yard line in the final seconds fell incomplete.

Houston’s defense kept it in the game for 43 minutes, and its offense ran the ball to find success late.

With the victory, The Roughnecks improved to 6-3 and secured an XFL South division title. They will host their first-round playoff game (likely against the Arlington Renegades, who Houston plays next week on the road) on April 29. The winner of that game will advance to the XFL Championship game on May 13 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

First, Houston takes on the Renegades at Choctaw Stadium in Arlington on Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m. CT.

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