Occasionally in life, you will attend a sporting event and struggle to put into words what you witnessed.
Last night was that for this author.
It was a highly anticipated matchup between the Birmingham Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers. These were the two best teams in the USFL with the two best records, two best offenses, and two solid defenses. Both were hungry for a win.
For the Birmingham Stallions, it was a chance to return to the USFL Championship and defend their crown. On the other side for New Orleans, it was a chance to get over the hump against their bitter rival who they’ve watched succeed for two years.
This was round six between these two teams since the USFL returned last season and round three this year. The Stallions won all three last year, including last year’s South Division Championship, but this year the teams split two regular season games. The point spread in those games was just +10 in favor of the Breakers.
We all expected a hard-fought, tightly-contested matchup. At kickoff, the spread was just 2.5 points in favor of the Stallions. I expected it to come down to the final play as it did in week seven when these teams last faced off.
The defending champion Stallions proved that the path to Canton still runs through Birmingham, and that’s not changing anytime soon.
The Stallions got off to an ideal start when cornerback Brian Allen picked off McLeod Bethel-Thompson on the first drive of the game.
They failed to convert a third and two at the New Orleans 23, but they still came away with three points after a Brandon Aubrey field goal. That put the Stallions up 3-0 with 9:19 to go in the first quarter.
The Breakers offense put the turnover behind them quickly, marching down the field for a touchdown on an eight-play, 74-yard drive. Bethel-Thompson connected with wide receiver Jay Adams despite defensive pass interference to put the Breakers up 3-7.
The bad news for the Breakers: that was their only score until the fourth quarter—which would be okay if you were stopping the other offense.
Spoiler: they were not.
On their next possession, the Stallions only needed five plays to find the end zone. A 32-yard completion from Alex McGough to tight end Jace Sternberger got the Stallions into New Orleans territory. Three plays later, McGough found Sternberger again on a crossing route underneath. Sternberger outran Breakers linebacker Jerod Fernandez and got into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. After going a perfect 35/35 during the regular season, Stallions kicker Brandon Aubrey missed his first extra point of the year to make it 9-7 Stallions.
Stallions linebacker Scooby Wright, playing for the first time since week four, began to make his presence known on the next possession. On first down, he nearly intercepted a Bethel-Thompson pass. And on second down, he tackled Breakers running back Anthony Jones in the backfield for a four-yard loss.
Facing a third and long, Bethel-Thompson found wide receiver Johnnie Dixon for a 19-yard gain. That kept the drive alive, but they failed to convert another first down and had to punt it away.
The Birmingham Stallions put together a nice drive on the ensuing possession, getting down to the Breakers 23-yard line. However, two incompletions meant the Stallions had to settle for a field goal. Aubrey was good from 41 and extended the Stallions’ lead to five: 12-7.
New Orleans went three and out on their next possession. The Stallions responded by going four and in…to the end zone. McGough found All-USFL snub wide receiver Davion Davis on a slant route underneath, and Davis did the rest, breaking several tackles on the way to a 36-yard touchdown. After Aubrey’s extra point, the Stallions took a 19-7 lead.
The Breakers again could not get anything going on offense, going three and out for the second time in a row. They were able to pin the Stallions deep in their own territory, but it did not matter. McGough was able to engineer a masterful 13-play, 88-yard drive. On third and goal at the five, the Breakers blitzed a corner to try and get to McGough. McGough saw, though, and threw an impressive pass with a defender in his face to Davion Davis, who ran a beautiful route to get into the end zone for his second score of the half. That put the Stallions up 26-7 at the break.
The Stallions got the ball to open the second half, and there was no slowing down. After three McGough passing touchdowns in the first half, this time it was the rushing attack that got going and found the end zone. Marable hit paydirt from 17 yards out, putting the Stallions up 33-7 early in the third.
On the Breakers’ first possession of the second half, it was a case of déjà vu. Just like on their first possession of the game, Brian Allen picked off Bethel-Thompson, giving the Stallions the ball deep in New Orleans Breakers territory.
Five plays later, the Stallions were in the end zone again. This time, it was McGough rushing in from five yards out for his fourth touchdown of the day. This was the Stallions’ seventh consecutive possession on which they scored, going back to their first drive of the game. Less than 10 minutes into the third quarter, the Breakers found themselves down 40-7.
The Breakers finally found the end zone at the beginning of the fourth quarter, scoring for the first time after a Stallions 37-point run. Cyrus Habibi-Likio broke a 27-yard touchdown run to cut the Stallions lead to 27 points: 40-13.
The Stallions offense did not let up, though. This time, McGough found wide receiver Josh Johnson at the New Orleans 18, and Johnson did the rest, taking it in for a score. That put the Stallions up 47-13 and set a record for the most points scored in a modern USFL game.
The Breakers continued to fight, scoring once more before the end of the game. They put together an 11-play, 75-yard drive, and Bethel-Thompson found his tight end, Sage Surratt, in the end zone to cut into the lead. After the three-point conversion, it was 47-22.
The Breakers opted to go for a fourth down onside conversion and were able to get it. They drove down to the Stallions four-yard line with a chance to score again, but Lorenzo Burns broke up a fourth down pass attempt to seal the game.
You can read the play-by-play, scoring summary, or check the box score. But you can’t appreciate the utter dominance of the Stallions’ performance if you did not watch the game. McGough was on another level, the Stallions offense was clicking on all cylinders, and the defense did not give an inch.
The only other USFL game I have seen with such a lopsided outcome was when the Stallions decimated the Showboats 42-2 in week two earlier this year. However, that was not a playoff game, and it was not against a team with the second-best record and the best-scoring defense in the league.
STALLIONS PLAYER OF THE GAME
Who else? For the eighth time this year, it was the soon-to-be MVP, Alex McGough.
Vote for the Stallions Playoff Player of the Game ✅
As Coach Holtz said after the game, McGough was painting a Rembrandt on the field last night. There is really no other way to describe it. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride before it is over.
Commentator Joel Klatt talked about it throughout the second half, but there was a key moment late in the second quarter. The Stallions were up 19-7 and had the ball deep in their own territory. Facing a third and 12 at their own 10, McGough got flushed from the pocket. Running around in the end zone, he found Deon Cain 30 yards down the field for a first down. The Stallions went on to score just before half, extending their lead to 26-7. After getting the ball to open the second half, they scored again to go up 33-7.
If the Stallions had not converted that first down, the Breakers would have gotten the ball back with great field position and plenty of time to score before half. They would have still been down going into halftime even if they scored, but it would have been a more manageable gap and would have given the defense some momentum after getting their first stop of the game.
Instead, the Stallions continued to run wild.
BIRMINGHAM STALLIONS STAT LEADERS
– Alex McGough finished 21/31 for 310 yards with four touchdowns (139.8 passer rating). He also had 84 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
– Ricky Person Jr. had 84 yards on 10 carries and a 24-yard reception.
– C. J. Marable had 72 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
– Davion Davis finished with five catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
– Jace Sternberger had three catches for 62 yards and a touchdown.
– Christian McFarland led the team with seven tackles (five solo) and added a pass deflection.
– Brian Allen had three tackles (two solo), two interceptions, and three pass deflections.
– Brandon Aubrey was 2/2 on field goals and 5/6 on extra points.
NEW ORLEANS STAT LEADERS
– McLeod Bethel-Thompson was 26/50 for 273 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
– Cyrus Habibi-Likio had two carries for 22 yards and a touchdown.
– Sage Surratt had seven catches for 50 yards and a touchdown.
– Jonathan Adams finished with four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.
– Jerod Fernandez led the defense with 12 tackles (eight solo), two tackles for loss, and 0.5 sack.
– Jarey Elder finished with 11 tackles (seven solo) and a forced fumble.
It all comes down to this: one more game. This one should be interesting. We have the best offense versus the best defense. Two teams that met once during the regular season with the Birmingham Stallions pulling out a close one, 24-20. Alex McGough had his worst game of the year that night, and the Maulers were just finding their rhythm on offense with quarterback Troy Williams at the helm. But that game was a month and a half ago, and both these teams have come a long way since then.
What will happen? Who knows. But I can’t wait to find out.
⚒️ BATTLE OF THE STEEL CITIES ⚒️
➖Defending Champs 🆚 Worst to First ➖Best in South 🆚 Best in North ➖Best Offense 🆚 Best Defense ➖MVP Alex McGough 🆚 DPOY Candidate Kyahva Tezino ➖Head Coach of the Year 🆚 Assistant Coach of the Year
What were your thoughts on this USFL matchup between the Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers? Which USFL players impressed? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!