Fans dubbed it the “War of the Wounded”—a Houston Gamblers team lacking their starting quarterback traveled to Birmingham this weekend to take on a perpetually banged-up Stallions team. The USFL South has been quite competitive this season, and Saturday was no different.
Both the Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers looked like teams missing key players at times. But both also had flashes of brilliance. Who would come out on top?
Whether it was injuries or pregame jitters or something else, it took a while for either team to get rolling. The Gamblers punted on the first possession of the game, which was followed by three three-and-outs. It was not until the fifth possession of the game that either team got a second first down.
The Gamblers first touchdown drive foreshadowed what was to come later. The Gamblers leaned on their one-two punch of running backs Mark Thompson and T. J. Pledger to move down the field. When in a bind facing a third-and-seven at their own 23-yard line, quarterback Terry Wilson used his legs to extend the drive, picking up 18 yards. On the next play, a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Stallions cornerback Brian Allen (the first of 10 penalties for the Stallions) put the Gamblers in Stallions territory.
Three plays later, Thompson broke free for a 17-yard run. However, Lorenzo Burns knocked the ball loose on a touchdown saving tackle. But, unfortunately for the Stallions, the ball exited the back of the end zone. Due to an offseason USFL rule change, this was not a touchback for the Stallions, but the Gamblers got the ball back instead at the spot of the fumble.
Next up, forward fumbles:
A ball that is fumbled forward and out of the end zone will NOT be a touchback. It will be brought back to the spot of the fumble and the fumbling team will keep the ball. More info ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/4QFLuB7lCm
The Stallions responded with a drive of their own. Behind McGough’s arm and Marable’s legs, the Stallions marched into Gamblers territory. But after a big Gamblers tackle in the backfield, the Stallions faced a third-and-nine.
McGough dropped back to pass but couldn’t find anyone open and took off down the field. He gave himself up and slid a few yards short of the first down, but Gamblers linebacker Khalan Tolson lunged at him. Tolson missed McGough with his head and shoulders, but both his knees hit McGough’s head, knocking his helmet off. The Stallions wanted a flag, but none was thrown, and they had to settle for a field goal, making it 3-7.
The field goal was followed by two three-and-outs and another Gamblers punt after a five-play drive. The Stallions got the ball back at their own nine-yard line with around four and a half minutes to go before halftime, and, like many times before this season, they were able to put together a great final drive before half. They eventually got down to the Gamblers one-yard line, and lined up in their notorious T formation. However, they quickly shifted out of it into a compressed bunch formation with McGough in the shotgun to run a play. McGough rolled out and hit Marable in the flats for a touchdown, putting the Stallions up 10-7 going into half.
The Birmingham Stallions got the ball to open the second half, and things began with a bang. C. J. Marable, filling in for a sick Deon Cain, had a great return past midfield. However, he coughed up the ball, and the Houston Gamblers recovered.
The fourth quarter is where things got interesting. The Gamblers had a nice drive heading into the fourth, getting to midfield. On the first play of the fourth, Wilson found a streaking Anthony Ratliff-Williams behind the Stallions defense for a 50-yard touchdown. However, the ball dragged on the ground, and the touchdown was reviewed by USFL head of officiating Mike Pereira. He ultimately decided to stick with the call on the field, putting the Gamblers up 13-14.
The Stallions drove into Gamblers territory but could not convert a third-and-nine at the Gamblers 34. Brandon Aubrey trotted out to kick a 51-yard field goal but ended up with his first miss of the season.
The Gamblers got the ball back and got to the Stallions 35-yard line. Facing a third-and-five, Wilson appeared to overthrow his receiver by a mile. However, Burns was called for illegal contact, keeping the Gamblers drive alive. The Stallions responded with sack, setting up a second-and-15 for the Gamblers back at their 35. The next play, Burns was called for his second pass interference of the game, moving the Gamblers down to the Stallions 20-yard line.
While Birmingham’s defense was able to force a third-and-goal, eventually the dam broke. Thompson was too fast for the Stallions to contain, as he dashed around the end for a touchdown, putting the Gamblers up 13-20.
The Stallions were going to start their next drive at their own 44-yard line after a great return by Marable, but a personal foul penalty on ZaQuandre White brought them back to their own 20. They eventually faced a third-and-four at their own 26. McGough looked to hit Sternberger, but the pass went incomplete. The Stallions were furious as they felt Sternberger was held, but there was no call. Commentator Joel Klatt explained the Stallions’ frustration well during the broadcast:
“McGough is furious because of this tug on the jersey right there—you see that tug on the jersey—that absolutely should have been called. Birmingham has been called for seven penalties—zero on Houston. Now a few of those seven have been pass interference that extended drives—allowed Houston to score. Birmingham now having to go for it here, Curt, on fourth down because of that missed pass interference on the last play.”
On fourth down, McGough was able to find tight end Jace Sternberger again for a 16-yard gain. However, the first down was negated by another penalty—this one offensive pass interference. The Stallions then had to try to convert a fourth-and-14 from their own 16. McGough found an open Davion Davis, who appeared to make a sliding catch, giving the Stallions a first down. It was called a catch on the field, but right after the Stallions snapped the ball on the ensuing play, the play was stopped for a review. Pereira overturned the call on the field, forcing a turnover on downs.
After an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Birmingham Stallions, the Houston Gamblers took over inside the Stallions 10. It only took them one play to score as Mark Thompson ran it in for his third rushing touchdown of the day, putting the Gamblers up 13-27.
However, it was too little too late. With only 10 seconds left, the Stallions tried an onside play from the 33-yard line to set up a Hail Mary. The play failed, and that was game.
WEEK NINE REMATCH
Both teams move to 3-2 on the season. The Gamblers are 2-1 in the division, though, while the Stallions are only 1-2. These teams will meet again in week nine, and that game will likely have huge playoff implications.
Birmingham Stallions Player Of The Game
Fans voted for quarterback Alex McGough, who single-handedly carried the Stallions offense all game.
Vote for your Stallions week 5 player of the game ✅
— Ace: United Football Media VP of Content (@PocketAces_USFL) May 15, 2023
However, my player of the game for the second week in a row was a Stallions linebacker. Last week it was Scooby Wright. Unfortunately for the Stallions, Wright was placed on IR this week. Rashad Smith, who would have taken Scooby’s place, was also out this week with an injury. Starting in their place was linebacker Elijah Sullivan, who saw his first meaningful action for the Stallions after being signed this offseason. The Stallions defense played well for the most part despite giving up 27 points. They kept a Gamblers offense that put up 463 yards last week to just 262 yards. Sullivan, who was playing on his birthday, was a big part of that. He led the team with nine tackles, five of which were solo tackles.
It has to be Mark Thompson after his three rushing touchdown performance. Thompson has only played in three games so far this season, but he already has eight rushing touchdowns. He is tied with New Orleans running back Wes Hills for first in the league. If Thompson continues to play like he has, he will be in the conversation for league MVP.
It’s hard to win games when you do two things: commit turnovers and penalties. The Stallions had one turnover: a fumble to start the second half. The Gamblers had none.
To the chagrin of Stallions fans, they also committed 10 penalties for 106 yards. They were the least penalized team in the league coming into the game and had only committed 15 penalties for 128 yards in the four games prior. Houston, who was the most penalized team in the league coming into the game and had committed 28 penalties for 256 yards, was flagged for none.
The Stallions’ uncharacteristically sloppy play came back to bite them as they were not able to overcome their mistakes against a solid, disciplined Houston team.
BIRMINGHAM STAT LEADERS
– McGough finished 24/37 for 209 yards with two touchdowns. He was also the Stallions leading rusher with 76 yards on just six carries.
– Jace Sternberger led all receivers with four catches for 41 yards.
– Colby Wadman had an impressive day punting, averaging 46.3 yards on three kicks with a long of 65.
– Terry Wilson finished the game 9/14 for 117 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for 41 yards on six carries.
– Mark Thompson continued to look dominant, rushing 16 times for 78 yards and three touchdowns.
– Justin Hall led receivers with six catches on six targets for 46 yards.
– Khalan Tolson led the team with seven tackles (all solo), one tackle for loss, and one pass deflection.
Neither team appeared to sustain any major injuries.
Up Next In The USFL
Next week, the Stallions will travel to Ford Field to take on the Michigan Panthers. After starting 2-0, the Panthers have been on a three-game skid, playing all those games at home. The Stallions will be hoping the Panthers’ bad luck in Michigan continues for another week as they look to rebound after a tough loss. The game will take place Saturday at 4:00 PM EST and will air on Fox.
On Sunday, the Gamblers will take on the top team in the North, the New Jersey Generals, in Memphis. The game will also air on Fox at 4:00 PM EST.
What are your thoughts on this game between the Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers? Which USFL players impressed? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!