Houston Roughnecks vs. Birmingham Stallions | Week 5 Preview

Houston Roughnecks vs. Michigan Panthers | Week 9 Preview

In this week’s divisional battle, the Michigan Panthers (6-2) travel to take on the Houston Roughnecks (1-7) at Rice Stadium in what should be a hard-hitting battle in the trenches. Both team’s stout defenses coupled with QB questions across the board all point to a low scoring affair in Texas.

Michigan comes into this matchup having won 4 straight games, and having clinched a spot in the USFL conference title. Mike Nolan and company have the team rolling despite struggles at the QB positions and injuries across the board. Their success in recent weeks speaks to the depth of talent assembled by the coaching staff- and has obviously paid off in recent weeks.

Houston on the other hand seems to finally be recovering from injuries they’ve had all season. Despite losing 4 in a row the team recently had their best showing of the year against Birmingham and may have found their future at QB with Nolan Henderson. With Michigan heavily injured and with little to play for other than pride- we could have a perfect trap game brewing…

Let’s take a look at the key factors (and history) between these two teams to discern who has the upper hand in Sunday’s showdown.

Quarterback Play

For Michigan, the QB situation is as up in the air as ever. The first matchup between these two teams in Detroit saw a stellar performance from the Panthers’ EJ Perry that was a major difference in the game. Since then, both Perry and backup Danny Etling have gone down with injuries- leaving the team in the hands of emergency QB Brian Lewerke and FA Bryce Perkins. The two have split time, alternating possessions against both Memphis and DC.

Although unorthodox, the 2-QB system has worked surprisingly well – leaving many to question if the team should even return to Etling should he come back from injury.

The major question heading into this week is who will start for the Panthers. Although it has technically been Lewerke the past two weeks, Perkins has arguably been more of a threat with his mobility and poise. Their different play styles also add an extra difficulty for opposing defenses trying to prepare. If positive QB play continues- and we see a true QB1 emerge for Michigan in this game- it is likely that Coach Nolan and the team will ride with them for the remainder of the season.

The Roughnecks too lost their starter early in the season. Jay Guarantano went down week 1 with what many perceived to be a season ending injury. He returned in week 7 in a lackluster performance against San Antonio before promptly returning to the sideline with a minor wrist injury.

This paved the way for Reed Sinnett and Nolan Henderson to once again see the field against Birmingham- the latter having a breakout performance and nearly leading the team to an upset victory. Sinnett, who has had a decent season, was replaced by the Delaware Alum midway through the game. This move brought the offense to life. Henderson threw for just under 100 yards and rushed for a TD. While these stats don’t scream superstar, his dynamic running ability opened up the ground game for Houston and confused the Stallions defensive front.

Coach CJ Johnson too was notably impressed with Nolan’s performance in his postgame interview. While it’s notable to mention that Henderson did leave Saturday’s game with what CJ called a “stinger” the injury is unlikely to keep him from playing this weekend. Will Henderson catch fire again remains to be seen. He will certainly have a tough task ahead with Michigan on the other side of the ball. Tomorrow, Sinnett will see the field first.

Standout Playmakers

For Michigan, the offense has revolved around star running back Matthew Colburn for the past 2 weeks. The former Philly Star set the game-high rushing total for the Panthers in week 7, and then rushed for 2 TDs and 93 yards the very next game. With Wes Hills out for the remainder of the season, look for Colburn to carry much of the load on the ground.

Defensively for the Panthers, Breeland Speaks continues to dominate the trenches. The EDGE superstar from Ole Miss has the third most sacks in the league at 5.5 and an impressive 23 tackles to his name. Recently he has sat out of practice with an ankle injury, but if he’s a go on saturday- it will make the Panthers job a lot easier.

The Roughnecks have struggled to find a go-to big time player who can perform for them in clutch moments- however RB Mark Thompson has shown his potential in the past couple of games.

Despite not having as good of a season as his USFL campaign thanks to a preseason injury, Thompson looked the best he has all year last week against Birmingham. Coach CJ has also shown increased trust in Mark recently. If Johnson is willing to increase the workload as well- Thompson could have a breakout game against Michigan. Either way – the Roughnecks will need him to show up.

On the other side of the ball, if LB Reuben Foster can get back to full health he will have a major impact. Foster has been the best, if not one of the best players on Houston all year long however injuries have continuously plagued the superstar. As of right now- there has been no update on his status.

Breaking Down The Statistics

Michigan comes into the game favored by 3.5, just a slight advantage over Houston. Despite the wide gap in a record between the two teams, their stats are fairly balanced.

– Michigan averages 22.1 pts per game compared to Houston’s 15.5.
– Houston averages 173 passing yards per game to Michigan’s 166. That’s 7th and 8th in the UFL respectively.
– Michigan averages 124 rushing yards per game compared to Houstons 70.
– Both teams convert 3rd downs at about 37%.
– The Roughnecks are the most penalized team at 60 penalties compared to Michigan’s 47.

These stats yet again paint a picture of a matchup that is likely to be low scoring. Offensively both teams’ struggles are excusable thanks to injuries, yet at this point in a spring football season you must be able to adapt, adjust, and play to your strengths. Michigan has done that better thus far leaning on their defense and ground game to push through. Houston to this point in the season- has not.

Coaching Matchup

Coach CJ Johnson of the Roughnecks and Coach Mike Nolan have now played twice against one another in the spring. In a week 1 matchup of the 2023 USFL season both coaches made their spring debut. The Panthers pulled away, winning 29-13 behind an offensive explosion from Josh Love. When the two teams and coaches faced off earlier this year the Panthers QB (this time EJ Perry) once again had a season best game. If history repeats itself a third time- with yet another different QB, we may be looking at a mismatch for Houston.

Mike Nolan comes from a more defensive background, having plenty of NFL experience as a DC and Head Coach with the 49ers. His teams typically are founded on discipline and winning the battle in the trenches. This season however, the Panthers offense has found more of a spark thanks to Offensive Coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille from the Philadelphia Stars.

As a Spring Football Coach, CJ Johnson has seemingly done the same with both of his teams being more defense oriented. However, Johnson himself previously was more of an offensive minded thinker serving as a WRs coach for much of his career. While poor QB play has mostly restrained that offense from taking off, it’s possible we see improvements with Henderson under helm this week.

In a game where so much is up in the air thanks to injuries and question marks for each team, coaching and the ability to adapt will play a pivotal role in deciding who comes out on top.

Final Thoughts

Houston has their back to the wall, a home crowd, and nothing to lose in this matchup. They are coming off of their best performance and have newfound energy on the offensive side of the ball with Henderson. Mark Thompson is the best he’s looked all season and many depth pieces are back from injury.

Moreover, Head Coach CJ Johnson has to prove to this league and this city that his team and coaching staff is worth supporting in the years to come. With all that in mind Sunday’s game feels like a perfect storm for Houston…and a must win.

On the Panthers side of things, Mike Nolan has no reason to be aggressive. Resting players, dialing in what works and what doesn’t before a big matchup with Birmingham next week will and should be the focus for Michigan. Certainly the team will play with energy, enthusiasm and effort- but I get the feeling that they could be looking ahead. Either way, Lewerke and Perkins at QB have something to prove, and each player is doing their best to get film for the NFL. Knowing that I still expect Michigan to come out and perform well. Plan for a close game, and a hard fought divisional battle this UFL weekend.

The Houston Roughnecks and Michigan Panthers face off at Rice Stadium, at 2:30 pm ET this Sunday on FOX.

Full Roster Breakdowns: Houston, Michigan

But what do you think? Sound off below in the comments, or join the conversation on Discord!