USFL – Third time’s a charm? After two other false starts in recent years, we finally have a championship game from a major spring league for the first time since the original XFL in 2001. The Birmingham Stallions will attempt to go wire-to-wire as the best team in the USFL, with only the explosive offense of the Philadelphia Stars between them and championship glory. The two sides meet this Sunday in Canton, Ohio, for the inaugural USFL Championship.
The Stallions being here is a surprise. They were, by a wide margin, the longest shot in the preseason betting odds at +750. But Skip Holtz’s team flirted with perfection until finally falling in Week 9. They gelled nearly immediately, ranking near the top of the league in every statistical category. They made a regular habit of second-half, come-from-behind victories, showing repeated poise under pressure and repeatedly sending the hometown fans happy. They enter Sunday’s title game as the undisputed best team in the league.
The Stars being here is a surprise. Rather than load up with former NFL veterans, the bulk of the Stars roster comes from Bart Andrus’ teams from the old Spring League—the immediate predecessor to the USFL. The Stars entered the season with the least-acclaimed roster in the league, loaded with XFL, AAF, and CFL guys. To make things worse, they lost starting quarterback Bryan Scott to injury in Week 3; he was leading the league in essentially everything. Yet they were able to rally around Case Cookus and get just enough out of their porous defense to find themselves here. They enter Sunday’s title game as the undisputed best offense in the league.
The Stallions are favored by 4.5 points, reflecting their full-season dominance. But no team ended the regular season on a better run than the Stars, leaving them with more than just a puncher’s chance at bringing home the first title. Who will win the not-at-all-derivative championship trophy? Let’s get into it.
What Happened Last Time
The Stallions beat the Stars 30-17 back in Week 5, slowly grinding Philadelphia into a fine powder. The Stars actually jumped out to an early lead, with Birmingham giving original starting quarterback Alex McGough much of the first half to try to prove he deserved to get his job back. He flopped, J’Mar Smith was reinstated, and the Stallions scored 23 unanswered points. They got a particularly good performance on the ground, as CJ Marable ran for 114 yards on 23 carries with a touchdown with Smith adding a rushing touchdown of his own to go with his 203 yards passing. Allowing “just” 4.1 yards per carry was actually a nice day for the Stars defense, but it allowed Birmingham to choke the clock out in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Early Stars fireworks from Paul Terry went for naught, and the Stallions remained undefeated.
When the Stallions Have the Ball
The Stallions finished the season with an 8.6% offensive EVOA, second-best in the league. Their running game, featuring the two-headed monster of Marable and Bo Scarbrough, was second in the league with 135.7 rushing yards per game. They also boast the third- and fourth-leading receivers in Marlon Williams and Victor Bolden. J’Mar Smith may not be the best quarterback in the league by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s good enough and surrounded by a great set of weapons.
On the other hand, the Stars were dead last in the league with a 13.1% defensive EVOA as they were soft as sponge for the vast majority of the season. They allowed a league-worst 151.2 rushing yards per game as team after team found plenty of room against them. They were closer to average against the pass, allowing 194.6 yards per game. More importantly, they led the league in both interceptions and fumbles recovered—on a down-to-down basis, the Stars are terrible, but they forced enough mistakes to get here.
How do the Stallions avoid those mistakes? By riding their running game to the bank. A competent rushing attack can blow the Stars’ front wide open, with their undersized defensive line getting shoved around by offensive lines up and down the league. It’s a minor miracle that the Stars managed to hold steady on the ground against the Generals last week; perhaps they were aided by the subpar turf at the Hall of Fame Stadium. It’s unlikely to happen two weeks in a row. And there’s no need to challenge all-USFL cornerback Channing Stribling (who leads the league with seven interceptions) or hard-hitting safety Ahmad Dixon (two forced fumbles) when you can continuously blow the defensive line off the ball. As long as the score remains manageable, Birmingham should ride Marable and Scarbrough, rotating them to keep them both fresh. The Stallions only lost four fumbles, fewest in the league, so ball security is not something to be worried about. As long as the Stallions can keep running, the Stars won’t be able to generate the turnovers that have kept them going for so long.
When the Stallions do drop back to pass, they should avoid Stribling, who has been a ball magnet. Stribling was knocked out of the semifinal game against the Generals, but it looks like he’ll be good for the championship game. The Stallions have a pair of top receivers, so there’s no reason to lock in on one against Stribling. The Stars’ path to winning this game almost requires highlight plays—interceptions, kickoff and punt returns, splash plays on offense. Keep things simple, Birmingham, and let Bolden and Williams run short routes and run after the catch. Both finished in the top five in YAC, and Bolden in particular was the league leader in all-purpose yards, showing what he could do with the ball in his hands on kickoffs. Smith needs to not play hero ball and just take what the Stars defense is giving him—which has typically been tons and tons and tons. Don’t let the Stars into the game with your own mistakes.
When the Stars Have the Ball
The Stars finished the season with a league-leading 16.0% offensive EVOA. Whether it was with Scott or Cookus, the Stars have had the passing game going all season long; you could argue that the Stars boasted two of the top four passers in the league. It’s no wonder the Stars passed on 65% of their plays when they had quarterback play of the highest order (well, for spring leagues, at least), nor is it a surprise that they’re the only team to crack 35 points this season—a feat they pulled off three times. In addition, the Stars just don’t turn the ball over—their 14 turnovers were the second-fewest in the league. They threw an interception once every 43.3 pass attempts; the league average was 32.4. The ease with which they threw the ball opened up lanes for the running game as a change of pace; they average a league-leading 5.1 yards per carry behind Matt Colburn and company, albeit mostly because defenses were selling out to try to stop the pass. Early in the year, that showed itself by sack after sack after sack, but the combination of giving the offensive line time to gel and replacing Scott with Cookus solved those problems. Whether it’s looking for Jordan Suell, Maurice Alexander, or the big Bug Howard, the Stars are equipped to win shootouts.
The Stallions defense finished second with a -8.3% defensive EVOA. They allow the fewest yards per game and led the league with 27 sacks. The Stars may have the offensive firepower, but the Stallions shut everyone down; no one has scored more than 17 points against them since Week 2. Demarquis Gates was third in the league with 6.5 sacks, with Scooby Wright, Jonathan Newsome, and Willie Yarbary picking up at least three of their own. Gates led the league in tackles for a loss despite missing one game. They’re perhaps a little less potent in the secondary, but only just—Brian Allen and Tae Hayes are both in the top eight in passes defensed and are a more than cromulent cornerback pair for this level. They’ll be tested if Cookus has time to drop back and scan the field, so they’ll be relying on that front to deny them time.
It’s also worth noting that Colburn will not be back after the injury suffered in last week’s playoff game. They added Dexter Williams to the roster, while Darnell Holland should slide into RB1 status.
If the Stars are going to win, Cookus will have to play like he did in Week 8. In the league’s best game for a quarterback, Cookus went God Mode—20-for-26 passing for 297 yards and four scores, as well as 102 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He spread the ball around, with six different receivers picking up at least 20 yards, and kept the Panthers’ defense guessing all game long as to just what was coming next. The Birmingham defense is a much tougher test, and they’ll put Cookus under significantly more pressure than the Panthers were able to, but Cookus has managed to hold his own against the pressure to this point. Keep throwing it up and hope that your receivers can spread the Stallions defense wide open. For the Stars to win this game, they’re going to need a significant advantage in big plays, and they way to generate them is to … sigh … let Caseus Cookus.
They’ll also need to clean up their red zone performance. Last week, the Stars moved the ball inside their opponents’ 21-yard line six times. They ended up with one touchdown, two field goals, a missed field goal, an interception, and a lost fumble. That was enough to overcome the Generals, but they’re shots you can’t miss against a team as strong as the Stallions have been all year long. The Stars need to cash in when given the opportunity if they’re going to pull off the upset.
Tell me how many highlights this game will provide and I’ll tell you the winner. The Stallions want this game to be predictable, a play-by-play dismantling of a terrible defense, keeping the Philadelphia offense on the sidelines as much as possible. The Stars want this to be wild and high-flying, racing up and down the field and getting just enough of a defensive effort to set up some short fields on offense. If the Stallions can jump to an early lead and sit on the football, this game’s going to be over quickly. The longer the Stars can hang around, the better chance they have of hitting the few big plays that will make them champions.
As a lifelong Stars fan for about four months, I’d love to see them bring the trophy back home … wherever it is they consider home to be given the hub model the USFL used this season. But the Stallions have just been too good this season, and that defense hasn’t allowed anyone to put up the sorts of numbers the Stars will need to win. I’m giving it to the league’s one home team, even if the game’s in Canton. Stallions 24, Stars 19.