USFL Week 8: Stallions and Breakers Fight for the South

USFL Week 8 Preview
USFL Week 8 Preview
Graphic: Erik Orr, EdjSports

USFL - When the USFL first announced its schedule, the league expected these final three weeks of the regular season to be the playoff push. Instead, Week 8 might see the end of the competitive portion of the USFL schedule, two weeks before the actual schedule finishes up. It is possible, by the end of Sunday night, for all four playoff spots to be locked into place. Divisional titles would still be up for grabs, but with all playoff games happening at a neutral site, there's no impetus to go all out for those titles other than undefined bragging rights.

Unlike some of the other issues the USFL has had to struggle with, this one seems like it's not their fault. It would have been hard to predict three different teams cratering to 1-6 records through the first seven weeks of the season. And the fact that the only teams in a division within one game of each other are the 1-6 Panthers and Maulers is unfortunate. Swap one of them with the 5-2 Breakers or 3-4 Bandits and you'd have at least one tight race down the stretch.

Ah well, we shall make do with what we have. This week sees the first rematches of the USFL, including the much-anticipated return contest between the undefeated Stallions and the feisty Breakers. If Birmingham is going to drop a game before the postseason, this is likely to be it. That's the game that will get people turning out to Protective Stadium … or, at least, it would be if that's where the games were being held.

Yes, for the first time all season, we're changing venues! Action shifts across town to historic Legion Field, the former home of UAB football before they moved across town last season. We're required to call it "historic" Legion Field, as that's the polite way of saying the Old Gray Lady has seen better days; they had to tear down the upper deck in 2005 because it no longer met modern building codes. That being said, the stadium has a long and proud history of hosting minor league football teams. The old USFL's Birmingham Stallions played their home games at Legion, as did the Americans and Vulcans of the World Football League; the Vulcans (no relation) of the American Football Association; the Fire of the World League of American Football; the Barracudas of the Canadian Football League; the Thunderbolts of the original XFL; and the Iron of the Alliance of American Football. It's nice to check in with history every once and a while.

This will be the first of two weeks the USFL is playing at Legion Field. Week 10 sees the league kicked out of Protective Stadium so that the building can set up for the World Games, the same reason why the playoffs were moved to Canton in the first place. This week, however, think less World and more Country, as Garth Brooks is taking over the venue for his Stadium Tour. Brooks is proudly advertising that he has broken the attendance record for Protective Stadium, which seems pretty presumptive considering there's one more week of USFL action to be had there. Just you wait and see, Garth, the Stallions will reign supreme one day! Probably! I mean, stranger things could happen.

Before we get into the matchups, here are the scenarios for Week 8.

  • The Stallions and Generals have already clinched playoff berths, while the Gamblers are eliminated.
  • The Breakers clinch the second spot in the South with a win and a loss by the Bandits.
  • The Stars clinch the second spot in the North win a win over the Panthers.
  • The Bandits are eliminated from the playoffs with a loss and a win by the Breakers.
  • The Panthers are eliminated from the playoffs with a loss against the Stars.
  • The Maulers are eliminated from the playoffs with a loss or a win by the Stars.

Wins by the Breakers, Stars, and Gamblers end the playoff race right here with two weeks to go. So if you see any strange fouls against them, well…

Pittsburgh Maulers (1-6) vs. New Jersey Generals (6-1)

Line: Generals -8.5
Friday, 8 p.m., USA

Ain't going down 'til the sun comes up
Ain't givin' in 'til they get enough
Going 'round the world in a pickup truck
Ain't goin' down 'til the sun comes up

Another Friday night game for the USFL, and another mismatch—on paper, at least. There are three different 1-6 teams in the league, but the Maulers have been by far the worst.

When these two teams met back in Week 4, the Generals cruised to a fairly easy 21-13 victory. This was at the height of New Jersey's two-quarterback attack, with Luis Perez handling the passing and De'Andre Johnson managing the running. That hasn't been the case for several weeks, with Johnson first taking over the role himself and then getting hurt with Perez filling in, so it'll be a different look for the Maulers to deal with no matter who ends up playing quarterback for the Generals.

Johnson has been returned to the active roster, but it remains to be seen if the Generals will rush him fully back into action—they have clinched a playoff berth already, so there's no need to risk him too much. We might see a return of the platoon for a week or two while Johnson ramps back up, just to limit his workload. Either way, expect plenty of Darius Victor on the ground to grind this one out. The Generals average a league-best 165.9 rushing yards per game, while the Maulers have the third-worst rushing defense in the league. Sometimes, football isn't rocket science.

Don't tell that to Maulers coach Kirby Wilson, however, who continues to mismanage the Maulers into misery. Last week, Wilson managed to screw up both in a strategic sense—letting the clock run out in the first half rather than getting into range for a field goal—and in a personnel management sense. Wilson and third quarterback Vad Lee got into an argument on the sideline, leading to Wilson benching Lee and shoving fourth quarterback Roland Rivers into the game. This was odd, because A) Lee had just led the Maulers to a touchdown, B) Lee has provided the only spark the Maulers have had all season offensively, and C) Rivers was only signed mid-week, and he looked uncomfortable and rattled after being forced into action. We have no idea who the Maulers will start at quarterback this week. We have a sneaking suspicion Wilson doesn't know who the Maulers will start at quarterback this week. We don't think it matters much who the Maulers start at quarterback this week. Generals 30, Maulers 14.

New Orleans Breakers (5-2) vs. Birmingham Stallions (7-0)

Line: Stallions -3.5
Saturday, 3 p.m., FOX

We live out in the country
She's my little queen of the South
Yeah, we're two of a kind
Workin' on a full house

While the Stallions have already clinched a playoff berth and are undefeated, they haven't yet locked up the South crown. The Breakers could still catch them with a win here, as they're the two good teams in the division. A two-game lead with three to play is probably too much for the Breakers to make up, but it's certainly conceivable—and, at any rate, a win here would prove the Stallions were beatable even before they lose the full houses they have been playing in front of in Birmingham. Full-ish, at any rate.

The Stallions beat the Breakers with a dominant defensive performance the last time these two teams met. Dondrea Tillman had a pair of sacks and three tackles for a loss, Scooby Wright flew around the field with 16 tackles, and a fourth-quarter safety and interception sealed the deal for the Stallions, 22-13. Like always, the Stallions had to rally from an early deficit, but that's just how every Stallions game has gone to this point. The first team to figure out to hold a lead against Birmingham will find themselves in good shape.

The Stallions would really like to have a halftime lead at some point during their undefeated season. They can't keep showing up, playing poorly, and just expecting to cruise over their opponents in the second half. It took a fake punt and some shenanigans for them to get going against the 1-6 Maulers, for goodness' sake; they need to start strong and early for once to show that their record isn't an artifact of the Hub, but rather something sustainable going forwards.

That likely means a hefty dose of Bo Scarbrough, who has taken the starting job away from CJ Marable even as Marable has returned to health. The Stallions' receiving corps is still banged up, though likely not to the extent it was last week when backup quarterback Alex McGough had to come in to play emergency slot receiver, so if the Breakers can find a way to slow Scarbrough down on the ground, they have every chance for an upset here. The problem is, no one has found a way to haul Scarbrough down yet; he's powering through contact everywhere as he's just too strong for most of the USFL's defenses. It's a tall ask for Jerod Fernandez, Vontae Diggs, and the rest of the Breakers defense, but stopping Scarbrough has to be priorities one, two, and three.

It's also a time for the Breakers to bust out any tricks if they have them. Last week, Larry Fedora sat down quarterback Kyle Sloter for the first time all season long, bringing in Zach Smith for a few drives. Smith is more mobile and offers a dynamic that Sloter doesn't, even if Sloter is the better passer by a significant margin. Considering Birmingham's pass rush did so much work in the first game, maybe we see more Smith here in the rematch to try to use the Stallions' aggression against them. All stops must be pulled out if the Breakers are going to win, though I think ultimately they'll end up just a wee bit short. Stallions 23, Breakers 19.

Michigan Panthers (1-6) vs. Philadelphia Stars (4-3)

Line: Stars -6
Sunday, 12 p.m., FOX

Something's not right if there ain't nothing wrong
It's got me wondering, why ain't I running

The Stars discovered that, hey, running is legal in the USFL! After weeks and weeks and weeks of getting nothing going on the ground, the Stars rolled to 152 yards behind Matt Colburn and Darnell Holland. Considering they entered the week with a league-worst 86.8 rushing yards per game, that's an eye-opening total. If the Stars have learned to add a rushing attack to their offense, that's a huge boon to their postseason chances, especially with the news that starting quarterback Bryan Scott has been officially moved to injured reserve, likely meaning it's the Case Cookus show the rest of the way.

Cookus was under center the last time the Stars and Panthers played and was lucky to come out with a win. This was the game where Fisher threw away a win by not running Reggie Corbin at the goal line on first down with 30 seconds left and two time-outs remaining, instead running the clock down to zero seconds before asking the punter/kicker he had already benched from extra points to attempt a game-winning field goal. Michael Carrizosa missed, and the Stars held on in a wild 26-25 game they probably didn't fully deserve to win.

Cookus has grown more comfortable in the starting quarterback role since that early-season matchup. He has found a great connection with Jordan Suell, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound receiver who is winning a lot of matchups just by being big and generally difficult to stop. Cookus doesn't have the same accuracy and drive that Scott had, but he's finding ways to get the ball to Suell and Bug Howard and Devin Gray as the Stars offense has begun to look more like it did at the beginning of the season. If you add in a rushing attack to help him, I wouldn't be shocked if the Stars ended up rounding into form at just the right time to make some noise in the playoffs.

If they're going to win this matchup, though, they need to figure out a way to stop Corbin, as the only thing that stopped Corbin last time around was Jeff Fisher. Corbin had 12 carries for 152 yards against the Stars last time out, and was still averaging 5.8 yards per carry even if you take out the 88-yard run to the house he had late in the second quarter. Corbin's the Panthers' best weapon; tops in the league in yards from scrimmage, he's a great combination of shifty and powerful. He just embarrassed Stars defenders left and right the last time they met, just like he has done to practically everyone all season long. The Stars allow a league-worst 163.0 yards rushing per game, and they'll have to get past the Generals' "run first, second, and third" strategy if they want to reach the championship. They have to start stopping the run at some point; why not Sunday? Stars 26, Panthers 25.

Houston Gamblers (1-6) vs. Tampa Bay Bandits (3-4)

Line: Bandits -5.5
Sunday, 4 p.m., Peacock

The whiskey drowns and the beer chases
My blues away
and I'll be OK
Yeah I'm not big on social graces
Think I'll slip on down to the Oasis
Oh, I've got friends in low places

The Gamblers are the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The Bandits have yet to get a victory over a team with more than one win this season. This is the only game that doesn't feature a team with a winning record this week, and it's relegated to a streaming service. Friends in low places, indeed.

The Bandits beat the Gamblers 27-26 the last time they met, with the Bandits scoring 10 unanswered fourth-quarter points to slip away with the victory. It was rather sedate for a Gamblers game, by which I mean there were only two or three completely inexplicable plays, including a one where Anthony Ratliff-Williams caught a long pass, fumbled it, scooped it up, and scored a touchdown. You know, run-of-the-mill stuff for a Gamblers game; they hadn't quite yet perfected the element of chaos that surrounds them.

The Gamblers are switching quarterbacks, with Clayton Thorson placed on the inactive list. He banged up his elbow last week against the Stars, with Kenji Bahar taking over for him. Bahar is more mobile than Thorson is, so expect the Gamblers to bust out the RPOs and rollouts to support him. It's a favorable matchup for him, too. The Bandits defense comes out at about average in our EVOA ratings, but that's more about steady consistency rather than big plays. They're last in the league with three takeaways and third from last with 12 sacks; their defense succeeds by bending and not breaking rather than making splashes. That should mean Bahar has an opportunity to get comfortable, which would help the Gamblers' chances.

The Gamblers, of course, are big-play elementals. They lead the league with 12 forced fumbles, they lead the league with nine interceptions … and they're last in the league with 367.1 yards allowed per game. This makes it a very interesting matchup for Jordan Ta'amu, who leads the league with 6.7 yards per attempt, but also leads the league with eight interceptions thrown and 15 sacks taken. It's going to be crazy, is what I'm saying.

In a matchup where the team with the most takeaways is playing the team with the most giveaways, throw the records out the window. The Gamblers aren't nearly as bad as their 1-6 record would indicate, as they have lost three games by one point. I think they finally, finally get back into the winning column this week—a week too late to salvage their postseason hopes, naturally, but better late than never. Gamblers 24, Bandits 22.

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