It has now been over three weeks since the Houston Roughnecks concluded their 2023 season, and just over one week since the XFL title game in San Antonio, Texas. The Roughnecks finished the regular season with a 7-3 record, which was the best in the South division, but could not get past the Arlington Renegades in the first round of the playoffs. The Renegades would go on to win the championship over the DC Defenders.
Now that the XFL season is officially over, it’s a good time to look back on what was ultimately a successful run for the Roughnecks. Houston may not have come away with the championship trophy, but the ceiling should only be raised higher as the offseason program begins. Director of Player Personnel Marc Lillibridge is already hard at work building a team for 2024, with a rookie draft right around the corner on June 16th and several more player showcases throughout the month of July. While there is plenty to be excited about, it’s important to reflect on how far this team – and the league as a whole – has come since the February kickoff.
In week one, the Roughnecks opened their season at home against the Orlando Guardians. Houston would go on to dominate Orlando, defeating the team 33-12 as edge rusher Trent Harris recorded four sacks and four tackles for loss. Alongside Trent Harris was Tim Ward, who recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss. On the offensive side of the ball, receivers Deontay Burnett (8 rec/90 yds/1 TD) and Jontre Kirklin (5 rec/71 yds/1 TD) played key roles when it came to moving the ball. For Kirklin in particular, this marked the beginning of an incredibly dominant stretch which unfortunately ended in week five.
In week two, the Roughnecks would stay at home and take on the eventual champion Arlington Renegades in a rebirth of the “Texas Throwdown.” Houston would go on to win 23-14, dominating on the defensive side of the ball (5 sacks and 11 TFL combined). Additionally, cornerback Ajene Harris and safety Sean Davis would both record interceptions in this game, with the two going on to combine for eight interceptions on the year.
In week three, the Roughnecks would finish a stretch of three home games and play the San Antonio Brahmas, who were also their third straight divisional opponent. Houston defeated the Brahmas 22-13, with quarterback Brandon Silvers throwing for a season-high 278 yards and 3 touchdowns. Running back Max Borghi (15 car/74 yds) and Jontre Kirklin (6 rec/77 yds/2 TD) were also standouts in this game.
In week four, the Roughnecks went on the road for the first time and once again faced the Orlando Guardians. This was arguably the peak of the Roughnecks’ season, as they set a new XFL record for points scored in a single game (across all three versions of the league, record was later broken by St. Louis in week 10). In addition to the record, the Roughnecks successfully executed a double-forward pass, which is legal with XFL rules. Jontre Kirklin found Deontay Burnett for the 49-yard score, and it will forever be remembered as one of the best plays in 2023. With Houston beating Orlando 44-16, they had a 4-0 record over the first month of the season.
In week five, the Roughnecks continued their journey on the road up to Seattle, where they would face a Ben DiNucci-led Sea Dragons team. The Sea Dragons, after starting 0-2, were finally gaining momentum in the North. It also marked Brandon Silvers’ return to the PNW, where he spent time in XFL 2020 with the original Dragons team. Unfortunately, this Thursday night matchup marked the beginning of an unfortunate and somewhat unprecedented losing streak for the Roughnecks, as they would fall to Seattle 21-14. Some late-game heroics by receiver Justin Smith were not enough to keep the Roughnecks’ undefeated streak alive.
In week six, Houston would wrap up their road trip by traveling to DC. To many, this had the potential to be one of the better games of the season, as the Roughnecks only had one loss and the Defenders still had a “zero” in the loss column. However, the Defenders proved to be too much to handle, and Houston would lose their second game in a row 37-26. Even though the Roughnecks were not victorious, Deontay Burnett’s 85-yard catch-and-run score from Cole McDonald was another top play of the season.
In week seven, the Roughnecks returned home to play another North division opponent, the St. Louis BattleHawks. This was another intriguing matchup, as both teams held 4-2 records. Quarterback Cole McDonald got his first start of the season, but the offense struggled to get on the same page, and Houston would drop their third straight game 24-15. While this would have been the time to start panicking, the team was still at the top of the South division, and the schedule would only get easier with time.
In week eight, the Roughnecks traveled to San Antonio and faced the Brahmas for the second time. In what should have been an easy win for Houston, the Brahmas made a late comeback attempt and would take the Roughnecks to overtime. Fortunately, Houston was able to hold on 17-15 and snap their losing streak, but the traditional “get right” game didn’t exactly have a “get right” feel to it. Regardless, a win is a win, and the team was now in a prime position to win the South.
In week nine, the Roughnecks would play their last home game of the regular season against the Vegas Vipers. While some of the other North division matchups, such as DC and St. Louis, had plenty of hype surrounding them, this was arguably the most entertaining game of the season for Houston. The team would ultimately win 28-21 and clinch the South division title, which was much easier said than done. The Vipers jumped out to an early lead, but the Roughnecks had a late surge on defense and would outscore Vegas by 13 in the second half. Throughout the year, the defense was always a strong closer, and they certainly turned up when it mattered most. Additionally, running back Brycen Alleyne recreated the iconic “Houston Hop” first done by James Butler in 2020, a heartwarming tribute to the original squad that never got to finish their season.
In week ten, the final week of the 2023 XFL regular season, the Roughnecks would stay put in the Arlington hub and take on the Renegades. This Renegades team was undeniably different from the squad they had faced all the way back in week two (check out my previous articles for more on this topic), but since there were no playoff implications on the line for either side, there wasn’t much to write home about. Houston would still win 25-9, as some players who had been low on the depth chart all year finally saw the field (Kaleb Eleby, Jeremy Cox, etc.).
In the postseason, the Roughnecks returned to TDECU Stadium one last time, again facing the Arlington Renegades. This was the third game out of eleven that Houston played where the Renegades were the opponent, and for Arlington, third time was indeed the charm. Luis Perez put on an absolute clinic, finding receiver JaVonta Payton on several occasions and finishing up with nearly 300 passing yards. The hole was simply too deep for the Roughnecks to climb out of, and they watched a close rival raise the South division championship trophy after a 26-11 loss.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this is certainly not the way the Roughnecks hoped their season would end, but there are plenty of positive takeaways. The most notable accomplishment of Houston’s 2023 campaign was having a perfect 6-0 record within the division (excluding playoffs). There were also many individual milestones that can’t be overlooked, such as edge rusher Trent Harris becoming the XFL sack leader (9.5) and cornerback Ajene Harris becoming the XFL interception leader (5). On offense, the team finished with a top-five passer (Brandon Silvers) alongside a top-five rusher (Max Borghi), and likely would have rounded it out with a top-five receiver (Jontre Kirklin) had he not been injured.
All in all, the 2023 Houston Roughnecks season will be remembered by fans, coaches, and players alike, with a job still to be finished in 2024. While things may not look exactly the same moving forward, with some departures at different levels expected, the culture that was built over the course of the past several months only brings more confidence and joy to those involved.
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