The reigning champs are officially the first team in the USFL to clinch a playoff berth in 2023. All it took was a little revenge against Southern rival Houston. Let’s take a look back at how it all went down, as the Birmingham Stallions took down the Houston Gamblers on Sunday.
Surprisingly, this one started off slow. On drives that started in the first quarter, there were three turnovers, two three-and-outs, and one field goal. The two three-and-outs opened the game. But on their second drive, Houston started to get into a rhythm. After starting at their own 29, they got all the way to the Birmingham 24. However, the drive ended with a huge Quentin Poling interception on third-and-ten.
The good news for the Gamblers was it only took them two plays to get the ball back. On second down, the Stallions ran a speed option. Quarterback Alex McGough pitched the ball to running back CJ Marable with lots of green grass in front of him, but Marable dropped the pitch. The Gamblers jumped on it, taking over at the Stallions 30.
Things went from bad to worse for the Stallions. On the ensuing kickoff, Deon Cain got drilled, fumbling the football in the process. The Gamblers jumped on it to take over in Stallions territory again.
And we get the ball right back! @RahmaanKR forces the fumble, @Tpalka5 with the recovery 💪
The Stallions offense continued to struggle, going three-and-out on their next possession. The Gamblers responded with a three-and-out of their own. However, that was not the worst part of the drive for the Gamblers. The worst part came on fourth down when punter Hunter Niswander dropped the snap, fumbling the ball deep in Houston territory. The Stallions jumped on it, giving them new life.
The Stallions started their drive in the red zone, and they were able to get inside the 10. However, McGough and tight end Jace Sternberger were unable to connect on third down, and the Stallions had to settle for a field goal, making it 3-6.
The offenses came alive at the end of the half. The Gamblers went 47 yards in 12 plays, getting into the red zone. However, like many games this year, the Stallions defense was at its best with its back against the wall. They stopped the Gamblers yet again, and another Vogel field goal made it 3-9 with 57 seconds to go in the half.
For most teams, 57 seconds is not a lot of time. However, for the Stallions, it was too much. The Stallions offense has been at its best in these situations all year. Coming into this game, they had scored on their final possession before half in six out of eight games. This week made it seven out of nine.
Sternberger was the hero of this drive. He opened the drive with a 41-yard reception. He almost scored on the next play but could not bring McGough’s pass in. Marable got the Stallions down to the Houston one-yard line.
After the game, Coach Holtz talked about something the Stallions offense does in practice every week they call “30 for 30.” This is where they practice the two-minute drill except they set it up such that the team must go 30 yards in 30 seconds. Then, come game time, they are amply prepared for any last-minute situations. So far this season, their preparation has paid off with huge dividends.
The second half opened with a bang. The Stallions got the ball to start the half, and it only took them four plays to find the end zone. On a first-and-ten at the Gamblers 38, McGough dropped back and hit Deon Cain in stride on a beautiful deep ball, putting the Stallions up 17-9.
The Gamblers had the opportunity to cut the lead even further shortly after. After a Vogel touchback, McGough dropped back to throw on the first play of the next drive. He tried to force a pass to wide receiver Davion Davis but ended up throwing an interception. An uncharacteristically bad decision, this was McGough’s first interception since week four.
But, as was the theme for the day, the Stallions defense bailed the offense out again. After starting at the Birmingham 41, the Gamblers drove down inside the Stallions 10. Facing a third-and-two at the nine, star running back Mark Thompson was stuffed by Poling. The Gamblers had to settle for their fifth field goal, making it 17-15.
McGough played with a short memory, getting into a nice rhythm on the next drive. The Stallions marched down the field in eight plays, setting up a first-and-goal at the Houston three to end the quarter.
Two plays into the fourth, Marable punched it in on the ground to make it 24-15 Stallions.
.@TorranceMarable endures the big hit and gets across the goal line. Stallions up 24-15.
After punts on the next two drives, the Gamblers had the ball again and were looking to close the gap. However, quarterback Kenji Bahar made a brutal error. Scrambling and looking to make something happen, Bahar left the pocket and headed toward the sideline. However, he lost his balance and stumbled and fell, losing the ball in the process. It flew right into the arms of recently signed cornerback Matt Hankins, and he easily waltzed into the end zone. That put the Stallions up 31-15.
The Gamblers went three-and-out again, and another Stallions touchdown put this one on ice. This time it was all McGough. He kept the ball around the right side and jumped between two defenders into the end zone, scoring from 16 yards out.
Because the Breakers beat the Showboats on Saturday, the South Division playoff game is now guaranteed to be played in Birmingham. The Stallions could still be the “away” team if they lose this week and the Breakers win, but either way, they will be playing in Protective Stadium one more time.
Birmingham get ready! The Stallions are playing one more at Protective!
A nice contingent of Stallions fans made the trek to Memphis for this game, and Stallions faithful are already starting to gear up for the first professional 11-man playoff football game in Birmingham in over three decades.
Entering this game, there were two leading candidates for MVP: Stallions quarterback Alex McGough and Gamblers running back Mark Thompson. Thompson alluded to this in the week leading up to the game, tweeting that the true MVP needed to be able to beat the other team with an MVP candidate.
Can’t be the MVP if you can’t beat the team with the other MVP candidate.. right? I’m replying to all banter 😂
While neither had their best game, McGough got the last laugh. He finished the game with 242 total yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, he led his team to victory.
Thompson on the other hand struggled to get going all day. Skip Holtz mentioned after the game that the Stallions defense took their loss to the Gamblers earlier in the season personally and wanted to play better in the rematch. They clearly made it a point of emphasis to bottle up Thompson, and they were successful, limiting him to 56 yards on 17 carries. Most importantly, they kept him out of the end zone all day.
McGough was certainly deserving of the award, but I am going to have to give the nod to the defensive side of the ball.
Firstly, really the entire defense deserves the “player of the game” moniker as Coach Holtz mentioned repeatedly after the game. They played incredibly, limiting the Gamblers to 15 points and zero touchdowns despite starting multiple drives with their back against the wall. The Gamblers—a team with a potent offense and the best running back in the league—were a shocking zero for five in red zone attempts. If the Stallions defense continues to play like that, it is going to be very difficult for anyone to prevent them from repeating as champs.
If I was going to recognize one player, it would be Stallions linebacker Quentin Poling. For the second time this season, Poling was awarded USFL Defensive Player of the Week.
In the first half alone, Poling had nine tackles, 0.5 sack, a tackle for loss, an interception, and a pass deflection. He was not as productive in the second half, but he still added two more tackles, including the huge tackle for loss on a third-and-two at the Stallions nine-yard line where he stuffed Mark Thompson to force a field goal.
The Stallions dealt with injuries early in the year, including losing star middle linebacker Scooby Wright. While the Stallions hated to lose Scooby, it gave Poling the opportunity to step up in his place. Poling has since become a star in the league and now anchors a Stallions defensive unit that appears to be healthy and peaking at the right time.
The Stallions signed defensive back Matt Hankins this past Monday. With only one week of practice under his belt, the Stallions decided to activate him for this game—and they are sure glad they did. Hankins put the game away with his fumble recovery for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. He added two tackles as well. He is a welcome addition to the Stallions defense as they prepare for a postseason run.
After the game, Coach Holtz talked about Hankins’ great week of practice and what he brings to the team.
– Alex McGough finished 13/21 for 208 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (106.8 passer rating). He was also the Stallions leading rusher with 34 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
– C. J. Marable finished the game with 189 all-purpose yards (32 rushing, 37 receiving, and 120 returning) and a touchdown.
– Jace Sternberger had three catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.
– Quentin Poling finished with 11 tackles (eight solo), 0.5 sack, two tackles for loss, an interception, and a pass deflection.
– Brandon Aubrey was perfect yet again, going 1/1 on field goals and 5/5 on extra points.
HOUSTON GAMBLERS STAT LEADERS
– Kenji Bahar was 20/27 for 149 yards with one interception.
– Mark Thompson finished with 56 yards on 17 carries.
– Isaiah Zuber had 48 yards on four catches.
– Manny Bunch had five tackles (four solo), one tackle for loss, and two pass deflections.
– Dayan Lake had three tackles (two solo), one tackle for loss, one interception, and two pass deflections.
– Nick Vogel was 5/5 on field goals with a long of 47.
The Stallions did not appear to sustain any major injuries. Offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson was out of the game in the second half with an ice pack around his shoulder, so it will be worth monitoring his status moving forward.
Next week, the Birmingham Stallions will take on the Memphis Showboats in Memphis. With a playoff spot secured and the game guaranteed to be played in Birmingham, the Stallions do not have a lot to play for. After Sunday’s game, Holtz mentioned the possibility of resting starters next week depending on what he and the players decided would be best. Memphis on the other hand has everything to play for as they will need a huge win to even be in consideration for a playoff spot. The game will take place in Memphis on Saturday at 4:00 pm EST and will be broadcast on FOX.
The Gamblers will take on the New Orleans Breakers in Memphis. Both teams will lay everything on the line as they look to secure the second playoff spot in the South. This one will also take place at 4:00 pm EST but will be on Sunday and broadcast on FS1.
What are your thoughts on this USFL matchup between the Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers? Which USFL players impressed the most? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!