Week four in the USFL has come and gone, as fans were treated to plenty of entertaining football this weekend. Some of the league’s trends remained the same – while, in other cases, there were a couple of surprises.
Let’s take a look at what happened this week, and what each USFL team needs to do moving forward.
Houston: All In
What a week it was for the Houston Gamblers. They absolutely pummeled the Stars, as their offense posted 461 yards (a franchise record). Whatever Curtis Johnson told the team after week two seems to be working. This team is a completely different unit, playing cohesive and smart football.
Mark Thompson returning to the lineup has been clutch. He was a one-man wrecking machine on Saturday, rushing for 134 yards and three scores, which ties a USFL record.
Kenji Bahar is showing so much growth already through this short season. He’s cut down the turnovers, which has – not surprisingly – resulted in the team compiling two wins in a row. With his improved leadership, the Houston Gamblers are primed to make a postseason run.
The growth & maturity of QB Kenji Bahar for the @USFLGamblers has been exceptional, just in this season alone:
On the defensive side, Houston played an excellent game. It was a tough first three weeks for this unit, but they found their stride against Philadelphia, keeping them scoreless for large portions of the game. If the Gamblers can continue to put forth solid efforts as a defense, it gives them a legitimate opportunity to move up the rankings in the USFL South.
Philadelphia In Trouble
The Philadelphia Stars have some glaring issues, and it begins in the trenches. The offensive line – and defensive line, were both dominated by Houston throughout the entirety of the game.
Case Cookus has struggled a lot this season, and it’s because the line has not done an efficient job of protecting him. Rarely does he have time to throw, and when he does, he’s out of rhythm entirely. Meanwhile, the rushing game is nonexistent. Philadelphia’s offense looks like a shell of its former self.
From a defensive perspective, this team needs a rebrand. They looked slow and lethargic against Houston, as the Gamblers literally got whatever they wanted all day long. Bart Andrus has to get back to the drawing board, and quickly, before this season is over.
Cole Kelley’s Success
The Memphis Showboats won their first game of the USFL season, and it’s largely because of Cole Kelley. Did he play a perfect game? No, not at all. But, he’s stabilized the ship for Todd Haley in Memphis, leading the team to much more success than they had with Brady White.
Cole Kelley in two starts:
36/64 (56.2%) 458 passing yards 4 total TD 1 INT 82.7 QBR 1-1
Memphis has a lot of work to do to become relevant again in the South. With that being said, they are taking the necessary steps in order to reach that goal.
For example, the defense finally played a complete game. They took the ball away from Michigan four times, absolutely dominating up front and in the secondary. If the Showboats can build upon this win, they’ll be in great shape. Next up: the mighty Breakers. This will be quite the test.
Ford Field Curse
I’ve seen enough. Ford Field simply curses any home team that plays on its turf. The Michigan Panthers that play at home cannot be the same team that plays on the road…there’s just no way.
For the first two weeks of the season, this unit was on absolute fire, dominating opponents on both sides of the football. Now, they can’t even beat the USFL’s “worst team”. In fact, the Showboats blew them out when all was said and done.
Something needs to be adjusted from an offensive perspective. This team is averaging only 11.5PPG at home, which is far from ideal. Neither Josh Love or Carson Strong have been able to provide much stability, which is disappointing considering how impressive Love was to start the season.
Mike Nolan understands that the turnovers are an issue, as Michigan committed four of them against Memphis. They continued to shoot themselves in the foot, despite moving the football relatively well between the numbers.
Michigan’s defense gets a bit of a pass, as they are dealing with multiple injuries up front and in the secondary. However, they haven’t shown much resilience, struggling quite a bit against New Jersey and Memphis. This unit has to get back to the basics, and it starts with their performance in the trenches.
New Orleans: Still Undefeated
John DeFilippo’s New Orleans Breakers are a well oiled machine. McLeod Bethel-Thompson has been the leader we all expected him to be, playing high quality football week in and week out.
However, Wes Hills has been a bit of a surprise. Since making his USFL debut in week two, he’s been unstoppable. The numbers Hills has put up on a weekly basis are ridiculous, rushing for eight touchdowns in just three weeks.
What a start to this game for the @USFLBreakers. Wes Hills caps off a six play, 62 yard drive with a walk-in touchdown to the left side.
On top of that, Sage Surratt, Lee Morris, Jonathan Adams, and many others add so much depth to an already stacked offensive unit. MBT has plenty of excellent weapons to utilize, and DeFilippo has consistently schemed well, getting everyone involved.
Vontae Diggs, who was a standout last season, has been a pillar for the Breakers defense. He racked up 12 tackles on Sunday, making several impact plays that allowed New Orleans to pull away late. At 4-0, the New Orleans Breakers are clearly the best team in the USFL.
After picking apart Michigan’s defense just a week ago, New Jersey had a tough time finding their footing against the Breakers. It wasn’t a poor performance by any means, but the offense stalled out one too many times, which ultimately resulted in the loss.
Defensively, it was an excellent outing. They stepped up in the second half, holding New Orleans to just two field goals through the final two quarters. Chris Orr, Shalom Luani, Toby Johnson, etc. all played their hearts out, and it showed on the field.
However, some mishaps offensively held this team back from reaching their full potential on Sunday. De’Andre Johnson had a solid game (which included a couple of ridiculous throws), but some drops and miscommunications with his wide receivers left more to be desired.
Wow. De'Andre Johnson just made one heck of a throw under pressure to Cam Echols-Luper, who takes it to the house, tying things up in Canton. What a play.
With all of that in mind, the New Jersey Generals should be just fine in the North. They’re rushing the football at a high level, showcasing they can still do what they did last season. If they can clean up some of the mental mistakes, this team will be in excellent shape heading towards week five.
By The Skin Of Their Teeth
The Birmingham Stallions just squeezed their way out of Canton with a win. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect – but a win is a win.
You have to credit this Stallions defense, specifically Scooby Wright III. They withstood multiple red zone drives from Pittsburgh, holding them to a field goal every time they got inside the 20. Scooby made his return to the lineup, and led the team in tackles. HC Skip Holtz referred to his presence as “invaluable”. Clearly, all the things he does for this team is appreciated greatly.
.@USFLStallions HC Skip Holtz on LB Scooby Wright being back in the lineup: "invaluable". @TwoStarScoob led the team today with six tackles, & a TFL. Holtz acknowledged how many little things he does for Birmingham's defense – and how important it is to have him healthy. #USFLpic.twitter.com/X6O3f8r1m5
Deon Cain is breaking out as a special teams star. For the second week in a row, he took a kickoff to the house. This time around, he had the clutch gene in his veins, as his return TD turned out to be the go-ahead score in the fourth.
— B2B CHAMPIONSTALLIONS 🏆🏆 (@USFLStallions) May 8, 2023
While Alex McGough made some poor decisions, he came around in the second half, dazzling as he always does. Despite missing some key pieces to injury, this offense seems to find a way. “Next man up” mentality is a staple of Skip Holtz’ culture, and it’s something that shines week in and week out.
The Troy Williams Effect
Troy Williams has grown quite a bit for the Pittsburgh Maulers since taking over as the starter two weeks ago. Even though the team couldn’t come away with a win on Sunday night, Williams played impressively well, all things considered:
Pittsburgh has a solid team, they just can’t seem to execute in crunch time. The Maulers had multiple opportunities to make something happen down the stretch, but ultimately came up empty handed.
Jarren Horton has this defense looking like one of the best in the USFL. They’ve played outstanding football through four weeks, and continue to put the Maulers in a position to win games. As the season reaches its halfway point, the offense has to figure out how to score more than one touchdown a game. Settling for so many field goals clearly doesn’t cut it.
USFL week four was another entertaining array of football, with most of the games coming down to the wire. Sunday’s slate, in particular, featured high quality action throughout its entirety.
In the North Division, someone has to find a way to get above the .500 mark. If New Jersey can find their groove, they could just end up with another first place berth.
Meanwhile, the South is heating up. All four teams won this weekend, making the playoff race quite interesting. Week five has a couple of pivotal matchups that will certainly define the postseason push.