As far as revenge goes, the Birmingham Stallions did not have much to look forward to in 2023. However, there was one USFL game they had circled on their calendars: a week five matchup with the Houston Gamblers.
The Houston Gamblers were the only team to beat the Birmingham Stallions in 2022. This week, the Stallions will get their shot at payback—but it will look quite different than expected.
New Look Stallions
The Stallions entered the season with a good bit of continuity from last year. They brought back starting quarterback J’Mar Smith, running back Bo Scarbrough, top wide receiver Marlon Williams, and star middle linebacker Scooby Wright. The bad news for the Stallions? Every single one of those players is now on injured reserve.
Coach Holtz had hoped other players would be back from injury this week, including defensive back JoJo Tillery and defensive end Joe Jackson—a new addition to the team who looked dominant in week one but has not played since. However, both remain on the injury report and are inactive for this week.
Kenji Bahar began last season as the Gamblers’ backup quarterback, but by their week nine matchup with the Stallions, he was the starter. He went on to become the only quarterback to lead his team to a victory against the Birmingham Stallions last year. He was looking to go 2-0 against the Stallions in their rematch this week.
Unfortunately for him and the Gamblers, he won’t get that opportunity. Bahar injured his ankle in the second half of last week’s game against the Stars. He seemed to be trending to return this week, but a week later he found himself questionable to return and on the inactive list. Terry Wilson will start in his place. Wilson was with the team last year but only appeared in one game.
With so many of last year’s starters out, it looks like revenge week has turned into a fresh matchup of new faces—and a very consequential one at that. Both the Stallions and Gamblers are 1-1 in divisional contests. The winner will take sole control of second place in the division entering the back half of the season.
Birmingham Stallions Charge Ahead
The defending champion Stallions were humbled two weeks ago in a 31-45 loss to rival New Orleans Breakers. Last week, they got off to a rough start against the Pittsburgh Maulers. Alex McGough threw two interceptions in the first half, and the Stallions started down 0-9. However, McGough eventually found his rhythm, and the Stallions were able to bounce back 24-20.
They will look to build on that momentum this weekend back in Birmingham. Offensively, things will look a little different. McGough, Marable, and White will continue to line up in the backfield, but they will line up behind some new linemen. Darius Harper will start at left tackle for the first time this year (although he did start there at times last year). Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms, a recent Stallions signing, will make his first appearance and start at left guard for the Stallions.
On the perimeter, the Stallions will be without electric wide receiver and kick returner Deon Cain, who is out with an illness. In his place will start Adrian Hardy, a familiar face from the end of last season. Davion Davis will handle the kick-return duties.
Defensively, the big question mark for the Stallions is the linebacker position. Middle linebacker Scooby Wright, the heart of the Stallions defense, is out again after re-injuring his calf. He missed weeks two and three, and Rashad Smith started in his place then. However, Smith is out injured this week too. In his place will start Elijah Sullivan. Sullivan was active in weeks two and three but saw limited playing time behind starters Nate Holley and Smith.
Sullivan has a solid pedigree. He played college football at Kansas State where he had 144 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, six passes deflected, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery over five seasons. He was a two-time All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection. After college, he signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent, and he also spent time with the Chiefs and Jaguars. The Stallions will need him to have a huge game this week against one of the best offenses in the league.
Houston Gamblers Look to Keep Rolling
The Gamblers got off to a rough start, losing their first two games. However, they have looked like a new team the past two weeks. Quarterback Kenji Bahar has hit his stride and looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He had his best performance yet last week, going 15/21 for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The bad news for the Gamblers is they won’t have Bahar to lead the team this week. Wilson will start in his place after getting some playing time last week. When called upon against the Stars, Wilson was 2/3 for 21 yards and added 49 yards on the ground on 9 carries.
Like Sullivan for the Stallions, Wilson has the potential to come in and be productive for the Gamblers. Wilson played most of his college career at Kentucky, where he was the first quarterback to lead the Wildcats to a 10-win season since 1977. He was also the first player at Kentucky to throw for over 1,500 yards and rush for over 500 in the same season. He’ll look to carry the Gamblers with his arm and legs against the Stallions this week.
The good news for Wilson is that the Gamblers have one of the best rushing attacks in the league to lean on. Starting running back Mark Thompson has been on a tear recently. In just two games, he has rushed for 214 yards and five touchdowns. T. J. Pledger will suit up this week after missing last week’s game. Pledger has 179 yards and three touchdowns himself. Together, Thompson and Pledger make one of the best one-two punches in the league. They will look to carry the team against a Stallions defense that has struggled to stop the run this year.
This is a key game for both teams’ playoff aspirations. I expect a high-energy, hard-fought battle. The Stallions most likely will have to rely on McGough’s playmaking again as the Gamblers have allowed the most passing yards and the least rushing yards per game this season. If the Stallions’ offensive line can provide McGough with the time they did last week, it bodes well for their offense.
The Houston Gamblers will look to ride Mark Thompson and the rushing attack to victory. The Stallions have one of the worst rush defenses in the league, and they will have to play without defensive captain Scooby Wright. Linebackers Nate Holley and Elijah Sullivan need to have huge games this week in order to slow down a rushing attack that has looked unstoppable recently.
This will be another close game, and I expect it could be a high-scoring matchup. With the Gamblers missing Bahar, I think the Stallions are able to pull it out, 31-27.
The two will play on Saturday, at 4pm ET on FOX.
What are your predictions for this USFL game between the Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers? Which USFL players will make an impact? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!