May 20, 2024

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McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Wes Hills Guide Breakers’ Strong Finish

4 min read
McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Wes Hills Guide Breakers' Strong Finish

With 42 seconds left, Wes Hills hesitated briefly, jogged in the open field, then sped into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

With a wild 38-31 victory over the Houston Gamblers thanks to Hills’ third touchdown, the New Orleans Breakers improved to 2-0 on the year and dropped Houston to 0-2.

Houston tied the score twice in the game’s final seven minutes by scoring a touchdown of their own. With the ball at the 14-yard line, the Breakers could have tried to win the game by kicking a field goal with the remaining seconds on the clock. But scoring a touchdown would also mean giving the Gamblers a chance to answer again, and New Orleans coach John DeFilippo even has a call — “church mode” — to instruct a player to go down short of scoring in such a scenario, but it wasn’t the call Saturday.

“I had been considering going down and I actually wanted to. Should I score?” said the 27-year-old Hills, who spent the previous two seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. “JD yelled, “Just score,” so I just sprinted in.”

Another CFL import and New Orleans quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson put his team in a position to win by dropping a 34-yard pass to receiver Lee Morris over coverage down the middle to cap off a strong performance in both of his previous games.

“We knew that play was in the bag, and Coach had a feeling,” Bethel-Thompson said. “This week in practice, I forgot to do it a couple of times, and Coach caught me every time. When practice pays off in a game, it’s gorgeous. That was a flawless route that (Morris) ran. He made an unbelievable catch even though I knew where he was going.”

In addition to throwing for 251 yards and making no interceptions, the 34-year-old quarterback also completed passes. Houston’s Kenji Bahar, who was his opponent, threw three picks, including two in the final minute.

With 1:53 left, Bahar’s touchdown pass to Justin Hall tied the score at 31-31. The Breakers then went three-and-out, giving Houston a chance to win the game in overtime. When Breakers safety Jarey Elder intercepted a deep pass that was thrown by Bahar from his 42, it was returned to midfield where Bethel-Thompson could then throw the ball to Morris. After Halls scored in the final minute, Bahar was given one more chance, but he was intercepted once more, this time by linebacker Vontae Diggs, securing the Breakers’ victory.

“It was one of those back-and-forth games, but at the end, we just couldn’t sustain anything, something we have to work on,” said Curtis Johnson, the coach of the Gamblers, whose team committed four turnovers in the second period of their defeat to Michigan the previous week.

According to Johnson, he considered instructing his defense to permit the Breakers to score in the final minute but ultimately decided against it. As a result, Hills broke through a tackle to reach the end zone.

Hills, who played for the Detroit Lions as an injury replacement in 2019 and scored two touchdowns, was happy to be playing football again close to home after having to travel to Canada for the previous two seasons. He gained 110 yards on the ground in total on Saturday, scoring twice in the final four minutes.

“It’s been a long road to get here, but I’m very thankful to Coach Flip for giving me an opportunity to come out here and play, to show what I can do,” Hills said.

Bethel-Thompson, who last week had the best passing performance in the league with 302 yards, had another strong performance on Saturday, particularly when he found tight end Sage Surratt, who had 11 catches on 11 targets for 121 yards and a touchdown. Despite the three picks, Bahar had a successful day with eight catches for 110 yards, two of which went to Hall. He finished with 266 yards and three touchdowns.

The USFL’s defending champion Birmingham Stallions, who were undefeated entering Saturday’s game against Memphis, will be the opponent for New Orleans when they visit Birmingham for their home games this season. However, they will be the visiting team on that same field the following week. The Showboats, who lost their season opener last week, will be Houston’s opponents when they travel to Memphis the following week in an effort to secure their first victory of 2023.

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” DeFilippo said. “We’ve established a connection with the coaching staff and players of (Birmingham), using the same meeting spaces in the same building. We’re going to savor this one tonight, give ourselves a day to recover, and by tomorrow we’ll be full-fledged Birmingham Stallions.”


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