Let’s face it: there’s not a lot going on in the NFL right now aside from a few gambling suspensions. You can take a look at mydeeper dive into that issue here, but we’re currently in the slow period of free agency, and training camps don’t open for a few more weeks. Only one thing can fix this problem: more football of course! College football isn’t around either, but we have the USFL. That’s not a league I cover often, but why not for this week? We got a good game, but the Birmingham Stallions were too much for the Pittsburgh Maulers in a 28-12 victory. Here are my 2023 USFL championship game takeaways!
The League MVP Played Like One…
Fresh off of the announcement that he had won MVP, Stallions QB Alex McGough showed a national audience why he deserved that title. Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt has consistently pointed out that the team runs entirely through McGough, and that’s a very astute point. The dual-threat QB led Birmingham in both passing (18/25, 243 yards, 4 TDs) and rushing (9/64). He consistently moved the chains, made ridiculous throws (even off his back foot), and used his athleticism to mitigate the potent Mauler defensive line. Three of his TD tosses went to Deon Cain (4/70/3), and he certainly had help, but this was truly McGough’s showcase for the NFL. Someone sign him immediately.
…Except for One Play
Not to nitpick here, but there was one outlier play that McGough would REALLY like to have back. With the score 21-12 and the game very much still in doubt, Birmingham was about to put a chokehold on the Maulers. Just outside the red zone, Pittsburgh blitzed, and McGough tried to evade it. He changed direction twice and went back 25 yards before having the ball stripped. DT Olive Sagapolu recovered, and the Maulers would have scored if his heads-up handoff to a faster teammate wasn’t forward. The Stallions’ defense stiffened and forced a missed FG, but that could have gone horribly awry. That was McGough’s one and only bad decision of the night, however.
Maulers Played Their Brand of Football Until the End
Like McGough, Troy Williams wasn’t a starting QB in week 1 either. His team is not built to toss the ball around, and they stuck to their identity: running the football and trying to stay in the game with their #1 ranked defense. Case in point: the Maulers went on a grinding 9:33 drive to start game. However, they only scored a field goal, which was a theme throughout the night. The offense played safe and seemed to worry about not making mistakes rather than punching the ball into the end zone. The defense fought admirably, but when your offense can’t score a TD and you’re an overmatched 5-6 team, it’s hard to win.
Birmingham’s Defense/Pittsburgh’s Special Teams were Unsung Heroes
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of other contributing groups. As well as Birmingham’s offense functioned, the defense was equally excellent. S JoJo Tillery flew all over the field, racking up 10 tackles, a sack, and a PBU. DT Keyshon Camp added two more sacks. CB Lorenzo Burns made 7 tackles, 2 of which were for loss, while providing sticky coverage. This win, and this whole season really, has been a team effort, and the defense has been an incredibly consistent part of it.
On the other side, Pittsburgh only hung in there as long as they did because of strong special teams play. K Chris Blewitt did not blow it, converting 4/5 of his FG attempts, including one from 55 yards. He accounted for all 12 of the Maulers’ points. Returner Josh Simmons, the All-USFL player at the position, consistently gave the offense good field position so they could at least punt from favorable spots. Had the offense pulled their weight, this wouldn’t be a 5-7 team. They might even be holding the trophy.
Stallions Owning USFL 2.0 Behind Skip Holtz
Winning a title is never easy. Claiming back-to-back titles is brutally hard. Doing so when you lose 6-7 top contributors in week 1? That’s special. McGough actually wasn’t even supposed to be this team’s starting QB. J’Mar Smith, last year’s co-starter, got the nod but tore a thumb ligament week 1. That game also featured the losses of RB Bo Scarbrough (for the season) and LB Scooby Wright (for multiple weeks). This is a credit to the team’s head coach, Skip Holtz. Since the USFL returned in 2022, Holtz’s team has lost just two games. You need skill and discipline to win at that rate, not just talent. This team is in such a good place, they might already be the favorites for 2024.