Week nine in the USFL has officially come and gone, bringing more entertainment to viewer’s screens across the country. Every game was competitive, and we saw the New Orleans Breakers officially clinch the final playoff berth.
As has been the case all year long, exciting plays were made both offensively and defensively. We even got to see a fake field goal for a touchdown in the final game of the week, which was just another example of the fun action the USFL has consistently brought to the table.
New Jersey once again proved on Saturday why they are one of the league’s best teams. They took Michigan’s best punch, and withstood the adversity to officially clinch the North Division. DeAndre Johnson got some playing time, which was good to see considering he missed multiple weeks of action with an ankle injury. The two quarterback system continues to work wonders for Mike Riley, and it would not be surprising to see them use this strategy in the postseason.
Darius Shepherd has emerged as another offensive weapon for New Jersey, racking up almost 100 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. It truly is fascinating how impressive this Generals offense is. KaVontae Turpin took a punt to the house, Darius Victor continued to barrel over defenders, and both quarterbacks were on point. Not to mention, New Jersey’s defense locked Michigan down when they needed to, ultimately sealing the win with an interception. Mike Riley’s group is playing like a championship team right now.
Michigan: Showing Potential…Again
Michigan is 1-8 – but every single week, they play like a team that can win football games. Josh Love and Eric Barriere look like solid options for Jeff Fisher to build around heading into year two, as both quarterbacks played quite well. Barriere in particular will be an interesting name to watch, as he showcased his talents against New Jersey. While a bit unrefined, he is someone that could develop into an elite USFL quarterback. Michigan features plenty of offensive firepower, with Stevie Scott and Reggie Corbin in the backfield – alongside explosive receivers such as Joe Walker and Lance Lenior Jr.
Unfortunately for Michigan, the same things that have haunted them all season long, came back to bite them against New Jersey. A late turnover sealed the deal, as Barriere seemed to have a miscommunication with his intended receiver. This Panthers team has so much potential, they just have to figure out how to put it all together on the football field. While it was another disappointing loss on Saturday, Michigan is right there every single time.
Well, who would have seen that coming. The Houston Gamblers, who were a -12.5 heading into this weekend, became the first team to take down the Birmingham Stallions – and they did so in impressive fashion. Kenji Bahar played a very solid game, coming into his own in the second half. Without his impressive showing, Houston would not have been in a position to win. While it wasn’t perfect, Bahar showcased some of his electrifying skills, throwing excellent passes and displaying his mobility.
Meanwhile, the defense did what they’ve been doing all year long. Chris Odom, Will Likely, Reggie Northrup, and Donald Payne have been absolutely sensational. Micah Abernathy was also a major factor in Saturday night’s win, producing big time plays when the team needed them. Even though season one hasn’t been as successful as the team would have liked, Houston has plenty of talent to build upon heading into year two. This win against Birmingham showed just how good this team can be, when everyone is on the same page.
As for Birmingham, this is a wake up call. In the second half of the year, Birmingham has not been playing complete football, even though they’ve gone 3-1 in that span. The offense has been very inconsistent, and J’Mar Smith and his receivers have not always had the proper chemistry. Bo Scarbrough was not able to get into a rhythm, which made Smith’s life a whole lot more difficult against Houston. Skip Holtz needs to find a way for his offense to get back to what they were doing in the first five weeks of the year – dominating opposing defenses with big plays, and smart decision making.
Defensively, Birmingham is still in a good place. They contained Houston for most of the evening, and made Kenji Bahar uncomfortable in the pocket. While there are always things to improve upon, the Stallions do boast one of the best defenses in the USFL. Quite simply, the offense can’t drop the ball. If they don’t get back to an elite status like where they were to start the season, Birmingham is in for a rude awakening in the postseason.
Well, it wasn’t pretty. But, New Orleans officially clinched the playoffs, led by their fearsome defense that has once again found its footing. One of the main things that was holding New Orleans back from being a championship team, was the decline of their defense in the second half of the season. However, they have dramatically improved upon that over the past couple of weeks, showing why they belong in the postseason. Jerod Fernandez, Vontae Diggs, Davin Bellamy, and others have been fantastic for Larry Fedora’s defense, and that was evident on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
Now, the offense is what needs to be worked on. Kyle Sloter continues to show his inability to be consistent, which is worrying. While he has dealt with injuries this season, Sloter simply has to be better if this team wants to go all the way. His untimely turnovers, and his has hurt the team multiple times. Luckily, Tampa Bay couldn’t score to save their lives, otherwise things could have gone in a totally different direction. Sloter threw for only 48 yards on Sunday, and finished with a 28.3 QBR. That has to change, and it has to change quickly.
Tampa Bay: Embarrassing
Goodness gracious…does Tampa Bay even practice? That was about as sloppy as things could get, during a pivotal week nine that decided the fate of their season. Nine penalties (in the first half!!) dug themselves into a 17-0 hole that they could not overcome. Turnovers were a huge issue, as multiple fumbles and interceptions stopped every positive drive that the team had going. Not to mention, dropped passes and a banged up offensive line made Jordan Ta’amu have to do literally everything for the team.
As has been the case for most of the year, the run game was practically nonexistent for Todd Haley on Sunday. While Jordan Ta’amu racked up well over 350 total yards of offense, the team only scored six points, which is unacceptable. Every time they were in a position to score, something went wrong. The team showed zero discipline, energy, or fight throughout the entirety of the game. Even though their defense did a solid job of keeping themselves in the game, it simply wasn’t enough. The offense has a lot of work to do if they want to be successful in year two.
Philadelphia got the job done on Sunday night, even with Case Cookus only playing for one half. Bart Andrus made the decision to pull Cookus in the second half, probably to ensure he stays healthy with the postseason approaching. Their offense still found plenty of firepower in Matt Colburn, who has been sensational as of late. Colburn put the team on his back in the second half, powering them to victory over Pittsburgh with some fourth quarter heroics.
As for the defense, the Stars have continued to improve upon their game week in and week out. Channing Stribling snagged another interception on Sunday (no surprise), while playmakers such as Ahmad Dixon and Cody Brown made an impact all night long. With how strong this unit has been over the past few weeks, this Philadelphia team is capable of beating anybody in the playoffs. As long as Case Cookus and the offense is on a roll, there is no limit for just how high Bart Andrus’ group can reach.
Pittsburgh Gonna Pittsburgh
To be honest, Pittsburgh played a decent game – all things considered. Vad Lee, while prone to making errors, made some big plays to put the team in a position to win. Unfortunately, their strongest asset in Ramiz Ahmed, missed a field goal that would have likely won them the game in the final minute of action. Kirby Wilson seemed to just be having fun out there, calling all sorts of trick plays and fake punts and field goals. Had Pittsburgh capitalized on just a couple more of the opportunities presented to them, they would have come away with a victory.
A FAKE FIELD GOAL FOR THE TOUCHDOWN
The @USFLMaulers are pulling out all the tricks tonight. The first TD pass of the night belongs to Kicker @i_m_Ramiz 🔥
While Pittsburgh has a lot to figure out heading into year two, Sunday night showed some promise. The wide receiver core of Tre Walker, Delvon Hardaway, and Bailey Gaither (who was inactive) have been fantastic. Madre London paired up with another solid running back would be ideal, as Groshek and London have too similar of a skillset to be a one-two punch. This offensive unit under a more experienced head coach would probably be in the thick of the playoff race right now. However, foolish mistakes continue to keep this team from reaching their full potential. Turnovers, missed field goals, and offensive miscues killed their chances of winning, something that has to be improved upon moving forward.
Generally speaking, week nine provided us with plenty of entertainment. We now know all four teams that will face off in the playoffs: Birmingham vs. New Orleans, and New Jersey vs. Philadelphia.
As we head into the final week of the season, expect a lot of teams to rest their starters. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to play your best players, with the risk of injury before the postseason. However, the games should still be quite competitive, as they consistently have been in the USFL.