After two weeks of the 2023 USFL season, it looked like there were two teams to beat. In the North, it was the Michigan Panthers. The Panthers were 2-0 after beating the Houston Gamblers in week one and decisively handling the reigning champions of the North, the Philadelphia Stars, in week two.
The other team to beat was in the South: the Birmingham Stallions. The defending USFL champions, the Stallions picked up where they left off in week one by beating the New Jersey Generals. In week two, they won by the largest margin since the USFL kicked off last year, beating the Memphis Showboats 42-2.
My oh my—how things have changed since then.
Michigan Panthers Home Skid
Panthers fans could not have asked for a better setup heading into the first Panthers home game at Ford Field. The Panthers were 2-0, facing the 1-1 New Jersey Generals, and kicking off a four-game home stretch. Fast forward to the end of that home stretch, and the Panthers have only done one thing so far at Ford Field: lose.
It began with a loss to the New Jersey Generals in that opening home game. That was followed by losses to Memphis and Pittsburgh. Now, the Panthers enter week six 2-3 and on a three-game losing streak.
Over that stretch, the Panthers’ offense has gone from bad to worse, scoring a descending number of points each week: 13, 10, and then only seven last week. The Panthers have now scored the second-fewest points in the league (83), and have struggled to pass or run, ranking sixth in both those categories.
Part of their offensive issues stems from a lack of solid quarterback play. Josh Love opened the season as the starter and had a record-breaking game in week one against the Gamblers. However, he has been on a downward spiral since then. Since week one, Love has completed only 48 of 88 passes (54.5%) for 402 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. That equates to a meager 54.3 passer rating.
With Love’s struggles, backup quarterback Carson Strong has seen notable playing time, but he has not fared much better, going 31 of 49 for 266 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions (67.2 QBR). It was announced this week that Strong has been placed on IR, so third-string quarterback Eric Barriere has been promoted to the active roster. Depending on how Love performs on Saturday, there’s a chance Michigan Panthers fans could see Barriere at some point against the Stallions.
The @USFLPanthers QB room will look a bit different moving forward. Carson Strong has been moved to IR, per the team.
This means that Eric Barriere will move to the QB2 slot, with the potential to finally see playing time this season. Love still expected to be the starter. #USFL
The Panthers have one of the best running backs in the league in Reggie Corbin. However, he enters this week’s game after a week to forget. Facing a stout Maulers front seven, Corbin only ran the ball for 11 yards on nine carries. He will look to get back on track against a Stallions rush defense that has been porous, allowing the second-most rush yards per game (138.8).
After allowing only 23 total points in their first two games, the Panthers’ defense has not looked as impressive as of late. They gave up 28 points to New Jersey, 29 to Memphis, and 23 last week to a Pittsburgh offense not known for scoring (although they have been improving in recent weeks). They will have their work cut out for them on Saturday as they face one of the top offenses in the league in the Stallions.
Birmingham Stallions & Their Troubles
The Stallions will find themselves in unfamiliar territory in multiple ways on Saturday. They will play on the road in Michigan—their first game not in Birmingham or Canton. After only losing one game last year, they enter this game with two losses. While the Stallions have looked dominant at points this year, a number of issues continue to pile up for them.
The perennial issue for the 2023 Stallions is injuries. In week one, the Stallions lost their starting quarterback, running back, fullback, and wide receiver for the season. A few weeks later, they lost their star middle linebacker, Scooby Wright, for the season. In addition to those losses, players have been out for nagging issues that were expected to heal up quickly. Defensive end Joe Jackson played well in week one but has not played since. Linebacker Rashad Smith will be out again this week for the second week in a row. So will wide receiver and kick returner Deon Cain, who is out with an illness. The only good news for the Stallions is that defensive back JoJo Tillery will be active this week for the first time in 2023.
A new issue for the Stallions has been turnovers. Prior to week four, they had forced three more turnovers than they had committed. In the past two weeks, however, they have had zero takeaways but three giveaways. This is not a trend the Stallions want to continue against the Panthers.
The most consequential issue for the Stallions last week was penalties. The Stallions entered their week five game against the Gamblers as the least penalized team in the league. However, against the Gamblers, they committed 10 penalties for 106 yards—several of them being drive-extending mistakes. The Gamblers, who were the most penalized team coming into the game, did not have a single penalty and this helped them to prevail on the road.
Offensively, the Birmingham Stallions have one of the best units in the league, scoring more points than any other team. However, their offense is almost entirely reliant on quarterback Alex McGough. McGough, the Stallions leading passer and rusher, has accounted for 1,186 of the Stallions’ 1,627 total yards (72.9%). He leads the USFL in scoring with 72 points, which is half of the points the Stallions have scored this year. The Stallions desperately need to find a way to get running backs C. J. Marable and ZaQuandre White going on Saturday or else McGough will have to continue to carry the load by himself.
Defensively, the Stallions have struggled without some key pieces. They have given up the second-most yards per game, including the second-most yards per game on the ground. However, they have only allowed 100 points on the year, which puts their scoring defense in the top half of the league. They have employed a “bend, don’t break” strategy throughout the season, which has not always been successful. Fortunately for them, they will face a sputtering offense on Saturday.
These teams match up well, and I expect this to be a close game. The Panthers’ defense has made numerous big plays this year, forcing 11 turnovers (tied for best in the league) and 14 sacks (tied for second-most in the league). However, they have given up too many points in recent weeks. This is partly due to the offense not setting them up for success as the offense has turned the ball over a league-worst 12 times so far this season. For them to win, they will have to protect the ball and eliminate careless mistakes while continuing to force big plays on defense.
The Birmingham Stallions, known for their consistent and disciplined play, took a step backward last week. Without many key starters, the Stallions will have to find a way to move the ball down the field and slow down the Panthers’ rushing attack. The worst thing they can do is make it harder on themselves with lamentable turnovers and penalties.
I think the more disciplined team wins this game. Given the Panthers’ offensive struggles and the loss of Strong, I don’t expect them to be able to do much through the air unless Barriere can provide a new spark to the offense. They will likely have success running the ball, but the Stallions will probably try to force them into being one-dimensional. Assuming the Stallions play smart, I think they can outlast and outscore the Panthers. I think the Stallions come out with the win in this one, 27-17.
What are your thoughts on this upcoming USFL matchup between the Michigan Panthers and Birmingham Stallions? Which USFL players will make an impact? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!