USFL Playoff Recap: Stallions Are Seeing Stars

Philadelphia Stars QB Case Cookus
Philadelphia Stars QB Case Cookus
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - The USFL shifted its focus to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame for it's inaugural playoffs. While the move may have been forced by Birmingham's commitment to hosting the World Games, the change of venue brought with it a refreshing new look to the league, as well as decent (if not amazing) attendance, creating the best atmosphere the league had seen since its very first game. I'm sure the league was hoping for a sellout and they certainly didn't hit it, even with a Trace Adkins concert between games to pump up the numbers, but having literally any crowd to speak of was a boost to the viewing experience, as both the Philadelphia Stars-New Jersey Generals game in the early window and the nightcap matchup between the Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers had a solid level of playoff intensity to them.

As for the games themselves? They were solid, if not quite the best the USFL has ever offered. The Stars ended up coming out on top in the North after a battle of turnovers and setbacks, finding a way to fight through injuries to all of their key players to finally knock off the Generals, who had run all over them twice in the regular season. They'll end up taking on the no-longer-hometown Stallions, who proved that their 9-1 record wasn't just a fluke of geography by turning to some old-school football to throttle the Breakers for the third time.

We'll preview the championship later this week, but for now, let's recap the action.

Philadelphia Stars 19, New Jersey Generals 14

Don’t call it an upset! While the 9-1 Generals were the favorites coming into the Northern finals, it was the Stars and their offense that had performed better over the final month and half of the season, including very nearly knocking off the Generals in Week 10 despite resting most of their key defensive players. So even though the Generals beat the Stars in both of their regular-season matchups, it is far from a surprise that Bart Andrus and his squad of minor-league veterans would find their way to the USFL’s inaugural championship.

Admittedly, this wasn’t the cleanest of games we’ve seen, even by USFL standards. The throughline of the game was setbacks, and how each team was able (or unable!) to bounce back. There were five combined turnovers, five failed red zone opportunities, and two major special teams miscues as both teams took turns striking at one another. The subpar turf at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium didn’t help, either. The Generals had a hard time gaining their footing, with DeAndre Johnson and the rushing attack stymied more by the conditions than by the Stars defense. They averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, a far cry from the clinics they put on in the past against the Stars. Not to be outdone, the Stars suffered through injury after injury, with running back Matt Colburn and cornerback Channing Stribling knocked out of the game and quarterback Case Cookus missing multiple series – that’s arguably the three best players on the Stars roster, all lost on back-to-back-to-back plays in the third quarter.

On a per-play basis, the Stars were better throughout the game as a whole. They averaged 6.1 yards per play as the USFL’s best offense showed up for most of the contest. The primary reason the game was close was the Stars’ continued struggles in the red zone. They got the ball to the Generals’ 21 or closer six times, and had to settle for one touchdown, two field goals, one missed field goal, one interception and one fumble. Give them even average red zone performance, and this game might have been a blowout in the Stars’ favor. On the other hand, if the General had gotten their mid-season performance out of DeAndre Johnson, they might well have come out on top. The Generals’ platoon system was working well early in the year, but ever since Johnson went down with an ankle injury at the midpoint, he just hasn’t been the same. Perez played most of the way for the Generals, but Johnson kept coming in for bits and pieces, mostly in the red zone. He ended up with negative rushing yards on the day and, to make matters worse, it seemed to knock Perez off of his rhythm, with one of his two interceptions coming after he had to watch Johnson fail to move the ball.

But enough of the what ifs and maybes; what we got was the game we got. The Stars looked to put this one away early, jumping out to a 10-0 lead at halftime. Mazzi Wilkins got the aforementioned Perez interception at the end of a 12-play drive, running the ball back 84 yards after Perez got flattened.

That set Case Cookus up with the quarterback draw two plays later for the early lead.

The Generals marched right back with a 16-play drive that ate up the rest of the first half, but they came up short in the red zone. They leaned on their rushing game on 4th-and-1 from the Stars 7, but Darius Victor was held short by Cedric Lattimore and the Stars defense, a huge play from a run defense that has been, shall we say, exploitable for most of the year. And then the second half started with the Generals fumbling the opening kickoff, and it looked like we were on our way to a Stars blowout.

But not so fast! Cookus threw his one interception in the red zone on the ensuing drive, and Luis Perez and the Generals came roaring back. The best quarterback in the league this season immediately found a wide-open Darius Sheppard for 63 yards.

The Stars once again forced a fourth down inside the ten-yard line, but this time, Victor was able to push through for the touchdown, making it a 10-7 game. Apparently. It was very close, but replay opted not to overturn the call on the field, and so we had a game.

That’s when the injuries started piling up for the Stars, and the scoring came to a brief halt. Backups K.J. Costello and Darnell Holland kept the offense moving, but Holland fumbled in the red zone and kicker Luis Aguilar missed a chip-shot field goal at the start of the fourth quarter. The Generals, however, couldn’t take advantage – their two drives gained a total of 11 yards, unable to take advantage of the brief Stars quarterback troubles. But if the offense couldn’t step up, perhaps special teams could. USFL MVP, rather controversially, went to wide receiver Kavontae Turpin, and he showed up after another three-and-out from the Stars.

The Stars managed a field goal on their ensuing drive, but that still gave the Generals a 14-13 lead with 5:55 remaining in the game. They tried to drain the rest of the clock; the really did. They managed to burn all of the Stars’ time-outs and push things past the two-minute warning, but they ultimately were forced to punt. And then the Stars, having watched Turpin do his thing, decided that a special teams touchdown in the playoffs would be a really cool thing to do, turning to Maurice Alexander…

88 yards; the longest punt return in the league so far. The two-point conversion failed, but that was still a 19-14 Stars lead with 1:41 remaining in the contest. All the Stars needed was one stop, from a defense that was last in estimated DVOA thanks to allowing more yards than anyone in the league this season. A defense that allowed more points than any other playoff team.

And a defense that helped them be first in the league in turnover differential. A defense that clobbered Perez at midfield on a desperation bomb, with Amani Dennis playing deep.

Ballgame. The Stars come out of this one battered and beaten, and it’s an open question just how many of the Stars stars will be able to start next week. File that under good problems to have, with the Generals seeing their 9-1 season come to naught.

Birmingham Stallions 31, New Orleans Breakers 17

There were probably a few signs of relief when the Stallions rolled to a fairly comfortable win over the Breakers. There was an idea that the Stallions were only as successful as they were due to the home crowd advantage, such as it was, from the partisan Birmingham crowd in the bubble; being exposed to a neutral atmosphere in Canton could end that success and, with it, bring questions about the viability of the bubble model from a competitive balance standpoint. One game isn’t proof positive of anything one way or another, but it leaves some minds at ease that the Stallions showed that you can take them out of Birmingham, but not out of contention for the best team in the league.

We can pick and poke at various aspects of this one to explain the Stallions’ victory, but the bottom line is the Breakers only managed to stop the Stallions one time, forcing a punt after J’Mar Smith took a bad sack midway through the second quarter. The other six Stallions drives resulted in three touchdowns, a field goal, a missed field goal, and the end of the first half. They had three separate drive of 7:30 or longer, including a 15-play, 88-yard drive touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to ice the game entirely. They were running quick slants and lining up in the jumbo T formation and just running past and over a progressively more and more tired Breakers defense. They had the ball for all but 4:19 of the fourth quarter. At some point, if you’re going to win a football game, you have to get the opponents off the field, and when the chips were down, the Breakers just couldn’t pull it off. The best defense in the league was just out-physicaled when the chips were on the line.

That’s not to say the Breakers didn’t make a game of it, at least for the first half. Kyle Sloter may not have been the best quarterback in the league, but he threw for 327 yards and a touchdown, albeit with a pair of interceptions and a completion percentage of just 55%. Jordan Ellis scored both Breakers touchdowns and 60 combined yards, while Sal Cannella caught 12 passes for 154 yards. There were times when the offense was in gear and looking good; they actually outgained the Stallions with 6.4 yards per play to Birmingham’s 5.2. They couldn’t get much going on the ground, but the Sloter-to-Cannella connection ate up some yardage, even if it wasn’t always pretty.

The Breakers also were the first on the board. After the Stallions missed a field goal on their opening drive, the Breakers were the first to find the end zone, with Elllis plunging in on third and goal from the one. They also managed to re-tie the game at 14, with Sloter finding the end zone again on a 4th-and-4 that was crucial to keeping this game a contest, at least for the first half.

But even while the Stallions offense was getting warmed up, defense and special teams were there to save the day. First, it was a DeMarquis Gates interception, rumbled back 70 yards for a Stallions touchdown to give Birmingham the lead for the first time.

And then it was Victor Bolden on the ensuing play after the second Breakers touchdown, bringing back the first kickoff return touchdown of the season to give the Stallions a lead they would never relinquish.

And then, in the second half, the Stallions went old school. Way old school. They came out over and over again in the T Formation, and just imposed their will on the Breakers defense. They ran 28 plays in the second half; 20 of them were runs and mostly out of heavy box-type formations.

J’Mar Smith, who had received some criticism over the last few weeks for some subpar play, ended up throwing for 190 yards and a touchdown, adding 48 more yards and a score with his legs. The rushing attack was a true team effort, with Smith, Bo Scarbrough and C.J. Marable each carrying the ball at least seven times. They only had one run over 10 yards, but that doesn’t matter so much when you’re consistently moving the ball forwards. And in the end, it just broke the Breakers.

And that sets up out matchup for next week’s championship. The Birmingham Stallions will face the Philadelphia Stars, a rematch of Week 5’s 30-17 Birmingham victory. The Stars have been a better team since that loss; the Stallions are regaining the form that led them to that win. Should be a good one from Canton.

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