Birmingham Stallions Win the USFL Championship

USFL Champion Birmingham Stallions
USFL Champion Birmingham Stallions
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for Scooby and those meddling Stallions.

The USFL Championship Game had a little bit of everything—big plays, backup quarterbacks, back-breaking turnovers, unique rules, truly head-scratching decisions and a finish that wasn't decided until the final minute in regulation. But in the end, it was the Birmingham Stallions—the team with the longest odds before the season began—who end up holding up the inaugural championship trophy. The Philadelphia Stars made it a game and covered the spread. Had it not been for Case Cookus' gruesome injury in the fourth quarter, we might be talking about Bart Andrus' men being victorious today. Instead, the Stallions scored two touchdowns in 16 seconds, Skip Holtz navigated his way through the season with just one blemish, and the USFL's home team managed to clinch a title on the road, beating the Stars 33-30.

It is fitting that the Stallions needed to come from behind to win the game. They had done so in seven of their 10 wins up to this point, after all; there's nothing more Stallion-like than having to put together a second-half comeback to win. It's also fitting that the Stars were competitive in this one despite giving up 7.1 yards per play and four sacks; their porous defense and offensive lines have been the story of their season, and they played fully to form on Sunday. The Stars got to this point by relying on big plays and clutch moments, but they had a few big ones go against them late in this one as they ended up falling just short.

The Stallions winning is one of the better possible outcomes from the USFL's perspective. No, Birmingham was not just dominant in the regular season because of home-field advantage; the Stallions were the best team from wire to wire and fully deserved the title. It's nice to see the best team finish the season on top. It makes the championship feel more deserved and less like random chance or something impacted by the specifics of the rules this season, important for a league in its first campaign as they try to establish credibility. To have the final game of the season in front of a packed house of excited fans was even better—it made the title game feel like an actual event rather than a made-for-TV product. And it's great that the city that hosted the league and all its teams gets to celebrate a title. Yes, attendance was lacking all season long, but Birmingham led the league in local TV ratings, averaging a 2.69 rating in their market. It turns out, having your team play in your city increases your interest in the league. Who knew! The Birmingham Stallions did create a sizeable local fan base, the biggest in the league, and they get to go into the offseason as champions.

With the league already confirmed as coming back for 2023—if not yet confirmed which cities, or how many cities, will be hosting it—the Birmingham Stallions will get to defend their title next season. Time will tell how many players get poached by the NFL, with Victor Bolden, J'Mar Smith, Bo Scarbrough, DeMarquis Gates, and Jerod Fernandez just a few of the names who have made a case for themselves over the past 12 weeks. But banners fly forever, or at least for however long a league lasts. And for the first time since the Birmingham Barons won the Southern League in 2013, Birmingham celebrates a champion.

Here's how the inaugural USFL Championship Game went down.

Scarbrough Busts Out

After exchanging field goals early in the first quarter, the Stallions were the first team to find the end zone. We talked earlier in the year about how the midseason acquisition of Bo Scarbrough seemed unfair for a team who, at the time, was dominating the league. But Scarbrough hadn't actually scored since Week 6, and while his 4.2 yards per carry made him the stronger half of his timeshare with C.J. Marable, he hadn't had a truly explosive game since his debut. Well, perhaps he was just saving it for the championship game. Scarbrough had 13 carries for 135 yards and the first touchdown of the day to give the Stallions a 10-3 lead in the first quarter.

Smith, Cookus Shine

The passing games opened up in the second quarter. While neither quarterback could complete the game (wait and see!), both the Stallions' J'Mar Smith and the Stars' Case Cookus played very well. Smith was 10-for-18 for 131 yards and a touchdown, while Cookus went 17-for-29 for 222 yards and three scores. Both quarterbacks traded touchdown passes midway through the second quarter, with Cookus finding Jordan Suell on a back-shoulder toss and Smith bombing one out to Marlon Williams in response, leaving the Stallions on top 17-9.

Scarbrough struck again late in the second quarter, rumbling 70 yards and setting up first-and-goal from the 5. The Stars' much-maligned defense managed to hold from there and the Stallions settled for a field goal. However, it meant Birmingham entered the half with a 20-9 lead, and it looked like things were going to get out of hand.

Suell Finds Paydirt

Instead, the Stallions came out of the locker room with a quick three-and-out, and Cookus marched the Stars right back down the field, capping the drive off with some fantastic improvisation in the backfield on third-and-goal before hitting Jordan Suell in the end zone. The two-point conversion failed, but it brought the Stars within five points and made this thing a ballgame again.

Smith, Cookus Leave

Things got worse for the Stallions early in the fourth quarter. Smith had to leave the game with cramps and never returned. Alex McGough came in and moved the Stallions well, but kicker Brandon Aubrey missed a short field goal, and once again Cookus and the Stallions marched down field. Costly peanlties on the Stallions—most notably a roughing the passer call against DeMarquis Gates on a hit that jarred some of Cookus' teeth loose—kept the drive alive. Cookus hung tough, staying in the game and finding Devin Gray for a go-ahead touchdown, adding in the two-point conversion to make things 23-20 Stars with 11 minutes left in the championship. The Stallions' missed field goal loomed large.

Everything kept piling up for Philadelphia. On the very next series, McGough threw the ball behind Marable, and it bounced off the running back's hands right into the arms of linebacker Jordan Moore. The Stars led the league in turnover differential this season, and this was just another example of big plays coming at big moments to help bail out a soft defense. Things were going according to script for the Stars.

Unfortunately for them, the script was about to get sour. Cookus was only the Stars' quarterback over the back half of the season because Bryan Scott suffered a season-ending injury back in Week 3. Well, on the ensuing drive, it was Cookus' turn. He suffered a serious leg injury, breaking his fibula after being caught on the turf for an ugly sack. It's terrible for Cookus for a number of reasons—obviously, missing the rest of the championship game, but also significantly harming his chances of getting a look in an NFL camp this offseason. Plus, he's getting married on July 14, and a broken bone was not on his wedding registry. Here's hoping he fully recovers, and soon. The immediate effect, of course, is that third-string quarterback KJ Costello had to enter the game; he had just 10 pass attempts in the regular season and now was asked to hold on to a lead in the championship game. Yikes.

Sixteen Seconds to Glory

But before Costello could hit the field, it was Mr. McGough's chance to rebound from his interception. McGough ended the game 7-for-10 for 77 yards with a touchdown to go along with his pick as he found Victor Bolden in the end zone to re-take the lead after the Cookus injury. Bolden won MVP honors with six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown as well as 23 yards per kickoff return. Catching the go-ahead touchdown with 3:09 left was huge, even if the Stallions missed an extra point to keep things a three-point game.

Costello had to answer. Sure, the Stars were down to their third-string quarterback, but if there was ever a time for him to shine, it was now. Costello took the snap, looked to throw on his first play in the game, and found … Stallions linebacker Scooby Wright, who took it back 49 yards for what ended up being the decisive score. Birmingham scored twice in 16 seconds, going from down three to up 10. Jinkies.

Philadelphia's Last Stand

It wasn't quite game over. Costello ended up throwing for 65 yards and a touchdown on the Stars' ensuing drive to cut the lead to 33-30, and even after a failed Alternative Kickoff play, the Stars managed to force a three-and-out.

The Stallions opted to punt from the Stars' 32-yard line, a very curious decision. They were facing fourth-and-9, and their kicker had already missed a field goal and an extra point, so at least you can see the logic? But though punter Colby Wadman made a very nice pooch punt, it rolled past multiple Stallions special teamers into the end zone for a touchback, so it ended up being a net punt of 12 yards. With the Stars needing just a field goal to tie, could Costello find the magic one more time? Would we see the USFL's new fancy overtime rules decide a championship?

No. Interception, game over, Stallions win a hell of a game.

Comments

9 comments, Last at 05 Jul 2022, 12:36pm

1 It's really too bad both…

It's really too bad both starters went down. McGough played alright once he settled in, but he wasn't Smith, and the dropoff from Cookus was even larger.

Would have been great to see Smith and Cookus both finish the game, might have been really fun. As it turned out, it was at least entertaining, even while it was clearly minor league football.

 

8 Having a crowd helps so much…

Having a crowd helps so much.  I know the hub saves money, but you have to balance that against the reduced interest that comes from sterile football, and it's a hard balance to hit.

Rumors have the league going to two or four hubs next season, which should at least increase the number of games with an interested audience. That can only help.

3 Entertaining game

Especially for a new league having a fun final game seems like a massive positive, much as drubbings can be satisfying it doesn't really sell the competitiveness of a new league

5 I was too busy to follow…

I was too busy to follow along with the season, but I'm just glad we got to see it to completion, unlike the past two. I love the idea of a minor league, so hopefully it'll stick around for a bit. Will there be another article as a wrap-up/retrospective for how the season went?

9 This certainly won't be the…

This certainly won't be the end of spring league coverage, though plans are fluid at the moment. We might wait a little bit on the retrospective to coincide with the XFL draft in November, because it will be interesting to compare and contrast the two leagues that plan to play next year.  And if a number of USFL players do make 53-man rosters, that'll be worth something, as well.