After week two of the USFL season, lots of fans had May 20 circled on their calendars. On that day, the Birmingham Stallions would travel to Ford Field to play the Michigan Panthers. At the time, both teams were 2-0, and it looked like we might be headed for a collision course of undefeated teams late in the season.
While that prognostication proved to be wildly inaccurate, yesterday’s game between the Stallions and Panthers proved to be no less consequential or entertaining. Both teams entered week six needing a win. The Stallions, coming off a divisional loss to the Gamblers, needed a victory to stay in the playoff hunt in an increasingly competitive South Division. The Panthers, having gone 0-3 at home after starting the season 2-0, were desperate for a home win and looking to get ahead in a tight race in the North.
Here is a recap of how it went down.
The Panthers started the game with the ball, and at first, things did not look good. Facing a third-and-nine on their opening set of downs, Panthers quarterback Josh Love was drilled by Stallions defensive tackle Jordan Thompson. Love coughed up the ball in the process, and it was recovered by Stallions defensive tackle Willie Yarbary. It would have given the Stallions the ball at the Panthers 26-yard line. However, in what felt like a flashback to last week’s game against the Gamblers, defensive holding was called on Stallions linebacker Quentin Poling, giving the Panthers a fresh set of downs.
On their next set of downs, the Panthers faced another third-and-nine. This time, Love found a wide-open Trey Quinn streaking down the sideline and into Stallions territory for a 33-yard gain. An offensive holding call two plays later backed up the Panthers, and they were not able to get another first down. They had to settle for a field goal, putting them up 0-3.
The Stallions could not have asked for a much better start to their first drive. On the first play, quarterback Alex McGough called an audible and flipped the play to the left side of the field. In a preview of what was to come throughout much of the day, the Stallions ran a read option right at two-time USFL Defensive Player of the Week Breeland Speaks. Speaks crashed hard, and McGough pulled the ball with nothing but green grass in front of him. He ran for 28 yards and into Panthers territory.
After three plays, the Stallions faced a fourth-and-one at the Panthers 22-yard line. Coach Holtz decided to take the points, knotting the game up 3-3.
The Panthers had to punt on their next possession, and the Stallions got the ball back deep in their own territory.
The Stallions proceeded to put together an impressive 14-play, 81-yard drive. Once in the red zone, the Stallions faced a third-and-10. McGough found wide receiver Josh Johnson for a nine-yard gain, bringing up a fourth-and-one from the Panthers seven. Holtz again settled for the field goal rather than going for it, making it 6-3. Holtz explained his thinking in the postgame press conference.
I felt like the right play was to take the points. On the road in a close football game, I didn’t want to drive the length of the field and come away with nothing. They have a really good football team, but I said, ‘It’s a long football game.”
The Panthers put together a decent drive of their own in response, but facing a third-and-11 in Stallions territory, they decided to run the ball. Reggie Corbin was tackled by Poling and not able to pick up the first down, bringing up a fourth-and-seven. Cole Murphy’s kick went wide right barely, and the Panthers came away with nothing.
The Stallions again dinked and dunked their way down the field, going 62 yards in 10 plays. Facing a third-and-15 at the Panthers 18-yard line, it looked like the Stallions might have to settle for a third field goal. However, for the third week in a row, the Stallions were able to score a touchdown right before half. McGough could not find an open man at first but danced along the line of scrimmage until he found running back ZaQuandre White in the flats. White did the rest, taking it in for an 18-yard score and putting the Stallions up 13-3.
With less than a minute to go before half, it looked like we might be done for the first two quarters. However, Love quickly led the Panthers down the field and into Stallions territory. Facing a third-and-three at the Stallions 15 with no timeouts and a running clock, the Panthers rushed to the ball for what everyone assumed would be a spike. However, Love instead dropped back to pass, but he had no receivers going down the field. He was quickly tackled and time expired.
Wow. Horrible clock management by the Panthers. Josh Love tries to run a fake spike, but no one else is on the same page. He’s tackled for a loss, and a great drive is wasted. Stallions lead at half 13-3.#GiddyUp | #USFL
After the game, Head Coach Mike Nolan explained what happened, taking full responsibility for the miscue. Apparently one of the coaches thought it was a must-convert, fourth-down situation and told Love not to spike the ball. The misunderstanding and miscommunication meant zero points for Michigan, and they had to go into half down 13-3.
For the third week in a row, the Stallions got the ball to open the second half after scoring to end the previous half, and for the third week in a row, they were not able to do anything with it. While they came up with points on every first-half drive, their first second-half drive went for nothing, and Colby Wadman came on to punt for the first (and final) time of the game.
The Panthers responded with an impressive 13-play, 77-yard drive in which they finally found the end zone. Behind Love’s arm and Corbin and Stevie Scott’s legs, the Panthers marched down the field until Love found tight end Cole Hikutini for a touchdown. However, a penalty negated the play. It did not matter, though, as Love found Hikutini again four plays later in the end zone. This time it stood, and the Panthers cut the Stallions’ lead to three—13-10.
The Stallions answered with a long drive of their own that took the game into the fourth quarter. McGough and running back C. J. Marable found a rhythm, accounting for all but 11 yards of a 68-yard drive. On third-and-goal from the Panthers 4, McGough hit Marable in the end zone on a beautiful over-the-shoulder throw, putting the Stallions up 20-10.
The Panthers went three-and-out on their next possession, and it looked like the Stallions might be able to put the game away. However, on the first play of the next drive, Panthers linebacker Frank Ginda forced a fumble when he hit White. The Panthers came up with the ball at the Stallions 27-yard line, giving them new life.
After a big catch and run by Quinn on first down, the Panthers had a first-and-10 at the Stallions 11. However, the next three plays were unsuccessful, and the Stallions were able to limit the Panthers to a field goal, making it 20-13 with 8:40 remaining in the game.
Facing a second-and-six at the Panthers 10, McGough finished the game how he started it. He kept the ball on a read option, bursting past Speaks and into the end zone for a touchdown. This one put the Stallions up 27-13 with only 3:27 to go.
The Panthers turned the ball over on downs on their next possession, and the Stallions were able to run out the clock. The Stallions will head back to Birmingham 4-2 and ready for a rematch against their biggest rival, the New Orleans Breakers. The Panthers fell to 2-4 on the season, including an 0-4 stretch at home. Next week they will go back on the road, where they are undefeated so far this season.
STALLIONS PLAYER OF THE GAME
For the fourth time in six weeks, fans voted for quarterback Alex McGough.
Vote for the Stallions Week 5 Player of the Game ✅
For the second week in a row, the opposing head coach had high praise for McGough. After the game, Nolan had this to say:
The quarterback for them did an outstanding job. He’s played well all year, and he played well again today. He hurt us early with some long runs, he hurt us in the middle of the game as well, and late. I would say he was a difference maker for their offense without question.”
Coach Holtz also had high praise for McGough’s play:
He’s playing at a really high level. The way he’s extending plays right now, the success we’ve had in the red zone. I make a stupid call, and he makes four people miss and then finds a guy in the corner of the end zone and throws it to him. His ability to extend plays, throw the ball accurately, and what he can do with his feet right now…I think he is doing a great job of playing quarterback.”
As spectacular as McGough was, my player of the game would be C. J. Marable. The Stallions have really struggled to run the ball this season, but Marable put the team on his back late. His success running helped open things up for McGough on the ground and through the air. Marable finished the game with 100 yards on 18 carries, adding another 16 receiving yards, a receiving touchdown, and 44 return yards.
It has to be Frank Ginda. Ginda finished the game with 18 tackles, tying a modern USFL record. He also had 0.5 sack and a forced fumble.
.@frankginda05 deserves a lot of credit for his performance yesterday. Ties a modern USFL record with 18 tackles plus 0.5 sack and a forced fumble. Has to be a candidate for DPOTW despite the loss. pic.twitter.com/2ZcGS8Mg6R
Early in the fourth, the Panthers gave the ball back to the Stallions down 10. It looked like the game might be over, assuming the Stallions put together a nice drive. However, Ginda forced a fumble on the first play of the drive, getting the ball back to the Panthers. A touchdown could have cut the lead to 3.
However, instead of a touchdown, the Stallions defense held strong, forcing a field goal. The Stallions got the ball back up a touchdown and drove down the field for a score, putting the game away.
Red zone defense has been a theme for the Stallions in their victories. In their two losses, they have given up seven touchdowns in nine red zone attempts (78%). In their four victories, they have only given up two touchdowns in 11 red zone attempts (18%).
Stallions red zone defense in their two losses: 7 TDs in 9 attempts (78%)
Alex McGough finished 19/24 for 133 yards with two touchdowns and a 117.5 QBR. He also added 82 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries.
J. Marable had 100 rushing yards on 18 carries. He also had 16 receiving yards and a touchdown on 3 catches. His 44 return yards on two returns brought his all-purpose yard total to 160.
Quentin Poling led the defense with seven tackles (six solo) and one tackle for loss.
Brandon Aubrey was 2/2 on field goals and 3/3 on extra points.
MICHIGAN STAT LEADERS
Josh Love finished 20/34 for 222 yards with one touchdown.
Stevie Scott led all Panthers rushers with nine carries for 46 yards.
Trey Quinn led receivers with seven catches for 108 yards.
Frank Ginda led the defense with 18 tackles, 0.5 sack, and a forced fumble.
Neither team appeared to sustain any major injuries.
Next week, the Stallions will be back at Protective Stadium in Birmingham to face their rival, the New Orleans Breakers. The Breakers are a USFL leading 4-1 so far this year, including a 45-31 win over the Stallions in week three. The Stallions will look to get revenge and move higher in the South Division rankings. The game will be at 4:00 EST Saturday on Fox.
The Panthers will be on the road after a four-game home stretch. They will take on the New Jersey Generals in Canton, OH. It will be a high-stakes game in the tight North Division. The game will be at 5:30 EST Sunday on FS1.
What did you think of the performance from the Birmingham Stallions against the Michigan Panthers? Let us know down in the comments below or join the conversation on Discord.