Emotional win for Breakers’ veteran QB, first-time head coach in opener

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – New Orleans Breakers coach John DeFilippo found his father, Gene, on the sidelines at Protective Stadium and hugged him amid the frenzied cheers of the Breakers players. In his first opportunity to coach a professional football team after 15 years as an NFL assistant, he coached his team to a 22-15 victory against the Pittsburgh Maulers on Sunday night.

“This is a really, really incredible feeling,” DeFilippo said, “something you think about a lot when you’re in this profession. To have my guys here to experience my first game as a head coach and not just , but to get a win was incredible.”

DeFilippo, who has been diagnosed with a rare medical condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which can cause debilitating pain in his back and feet, has been told the condition may not allow him to run. On Sunday, he he ran walking out of the tunnel of the Protective Stadium in a walking boot.

His team rallied around him, feeding off his passion for them and the game he coaches.

“I’m not here without the coach [DeFilippo]” said Breakers quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a Canadian Football League veteran. “It’s the reason I came here. There aren’t many other coaches, if any, that I would come here to play with.”

While their offense got off to a slow start, the Breakers’ defense picked up where it left off. The USFL’s top defense of 2022 did not allow an offensive TD in its first game of 2023.

After the Maulers and Breakers each had a field goal on their first possessions of the season, neither team averaged more than 2.7 yards per play in the first half. There were no offensive touchdowns until the fourth quarter.

The Maulers’ offense, however, was particularly erratic, compiling just 156 total yards in the game. Pittsburgh quarterbacks James Morgan and Troy Williams combined to complete just 10 of 27 passes for 81 yards.

Highlights: Breakers top Maulers

Highlights: Breakers top Maulers

McLeod Bethel-Thompson led the New Orleans Breakers to a 22-15 victory over the Pittsburgh Maulers, passing for 302 yards.

Maulers defense has prize in Foster

But the defense did what they could to keep the Maulers at bay. His effort was punctuated when former first-round pick and Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster hit Breakers running back Anthony Jones, causing a fumble.

The hit came in Foster’s first game as a professional in more than four years, dating back to October 2018.

“He’s a legit player,” Maulers coach Ray Horton said. “He’s a man, a leader. He’s a guy who wants the play to come to him. He exemplifies what we want to be on defense. So that’s all I can hope for. Guys look up to him. Me too.”

Maulers linebacker Kyahva Tezino recovered Jones’ fumble in the end zone for the USFL’s first defensive TD of the season, and Pittsburgh’s first TD of any kind of the season.

The Maulers had a chance to score their first offensive TD with 10:23 left to play. But on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Breakers linebacker Vontae Diggs managed to stop Maulers running back Garrett Groshek in the backfield.

After turnovers, the Breakers were forced to punt after 11 plays and chewed 4:58 off the clock. However, New Orleans punter Matt Coughlin’s 21-yard punt was returned 82 yards for a punt by Isiah Hines, tying the score at 15-15 with 4:32 to play.

After Maulers kicker Nathan Hierlihy missed his extra point attempt, he made a bad situation worse when he kicked his kick out of bounds, allowing Bethel-Thompson and the Breakers to start their drive from from the 50-yard line.

Isiah Hennie’s 82-yard WILD punt return

Isiah Hennie's 82-yard WILD punt return

Pittsburgh’s Isiah Hennie tied the score late with a dynamic punt return TD.

Bethel-Thompson comes through in the clutch

DeFilippo put the game in the hands of the league’s biggest player, its 34-year-old quarterback. After two short completions, Bethel-Thompson found wideout Sage Surratt on a crossing route up the middle for a 36-yard gain.

A steady diet of Bethel-Thompson-to-Jones led to a 2-yard completion for the game’s first offensive TD, coming with 1:13 to play. A made extra point made it 22-15 as the Maulers took possession.

The Maulers’ last chance to tie the game was on a failed pass attempt on fourth down from the Breakers’ 32-yard line.

Bethel-Thompson became the USFL’s first 300-yard passer of the season in the win. He completed 23 of 41 attempts for 302 yards, but none were bigger than his game-winning throw to Jones.

Bethel-Thompson came to the USFL after a career in the CFL, where he won two Gray Cups and passed for over 4,000 yards twice.

“Coming out in the first half, we were like a Ferrari, but we put the wrong gas on the Ferrari,” he said. “So we weren’t moving that well. And then the second half started and that means the most.”

DeFilippo also wasn’t pleased with how the Breakers’ offense performed in the first half.

“I thought offensively it was probably one of the most painful first parts of football I’ve ever had to witness,” he said. “But I was proud of our guys for stepping up and coming out and playing amazing in the second half.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The number one college football show.“Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young i subscribe to “The Number One College Football Show” on YouTube.

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