On Saturday night, the Birmingham Stallions were back in Protective Stadium for the first time since week nine of the 2022 regular season. They hosted the New Jersey Generals, who were eager to get revenge. Before the game, the league unveiled a massive 2022 USFL Champions banner that will remain in the upper deck of Protective Stadium throughout the season.
But as Head Coach Skip Holtz has harped on throughout training camp, that was 2022. 2023 is an entirely new season. It didn’t take long for the Stallions to prove, though, that they were still in 2022 form.
The Generals got the ball to start the game. On just their fourth play from scrimmage, quarterback De’Andre Johnson hit tight end Brandon Bowman in the flat, but he lost the ball as linebackers Nate Holley and Scooby Wright sandwiched him. Nate Brooks jumped on it to give the Stallions their first turnover of the 2023 season.
Once the Stallions got the ball, it was time to cue the fireworks. On their first offensive play of 2023, J’Mar Smith dropped back and hit former UAB wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr. in stride for a 61-yard touchdown. The home crowd erupted while the rest of the league let out a collective sigh: the 2022 USFL Champions are back.
Things slowed down a little for both teams after the initial fireworks. There were four punts, including three three-and-outs. In the second quarter, the Generals finally found some offensive rhythm behind backup quarterback Dakota Prukop. Prukop used both his arm and his legs to lead the Generals down the field, diving into the end zone and giving them their first score of 2023 while tying up the game 7-7.
The Stallions responded with a nice drive of their own, marching down the field behind the arm of quarterback J’Mar Smith. After a Generals penalty, they found themselves with a first and goal. After two rushes by running back C. J. Marable, they hurried to the line for a quick third and one play. However, Smith bobbled a low snap and had to fall on it before the Generals recovered, meaning the Stallions had to settle for a field goal.
The Generals answered by marching down the field themselves. Riding a rushing attack led by Johnson and running back Darius Victor, they found themselves with a first and goal of their own. However, after three attempts from the one-yard line, they came up short. The Stallions had a huge (and controversial) goal line stand on a fourth and one and took the ball back deep in their own territory.
However, the Generals got the ball right back. On second and ten from the one, J’Mar Smith threw the ball away under pressure, but, unfortunately for the Stallions, it went right into Generals defensive back D. J. Daniel’s arms.
The Stallions defense held strong, though, and held the New Jersey Generals to a field goal. Smith then drove the Stallions down the field on an excellent two-minute drive but had to leave the game with a dislocated finger on his non-throwing hand. In a role reversal from last year, McGough entered the game after Smith’s injury. On his first play, McGough threw a dart to roommate Jace Sternberger in the back of the end zone to make it 17-10 at half.
In the second half, the Birmingham Stallions really hit their stride, looking more and more dominant. The Generals’ first offensive possession of the second half ended the same way as their first possession in the first half: defensive end Joe Jackson tackled Prukop in the backfield, stripping the ball and forcing a fumble. Darrion Daniels recovered, and the Stallions took over in Generals territory.
Defense was the name of the rest of the game for the Stallions as they forced three turnovers on downs in the fourth quarter. All-USFL kicker Brandon Aubrey hit a 49-yard field goal in the fourth quarter as well to bring us to the final score, 27-10.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
The Birmingham offense was hot and cold in the first half. After an injury to J’Mar Smith, Alex McGough came in and lit a fire the New Jersey Generals couldn’t put out. He finished the game 7 of 11 for 68 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He also finished as the Stallions’ leading rusher, putting up 51 yards on eight carries and adding one touchdown—an impressive 29-yard scamper.
Late in the second quarter, J’Mar Smith made a dreadful decision that turned into an interception for the Generals deep in Stallions’ territory. Thankfully, the Stallions defense was able to limit the New Jersey Generals to a field goal. That tied the game up 10-10 with less than two minutes before half. Smith was able to lead the Stallions down the field in a masterful two-minute drive. However, he injured his finger and needed to come out of the game. McGough came in and hit Jace Sternberger in the back of the end zone for a touchdown with just seconds on the clock before halftime. That put the Stallions up 17-10. They got the ball to begin the second half and held the lead for the rest of the game.
– Jace Sternberger was the Stallions’ leading receiver, catching all five of his targets for 62 yards and a touchdown.
– Christian McFarland led the team in tackles with 12, including a controversial goal line stand late in the second quarter.
– Nate Holley had six tackles and a forced fumble early in the game.
– Nate Brooks also had six tackles and recovered the fumble Holley forced.
– Joe Jackson had three tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and a forced fumble.
– Brandon Aubrey was 2/2 on field goals, including a 49-yarder, and 3/3 on extra points.
Unfortunately, the Stallions did not come out of this one unscathed. Scooby Wright reaggravated a calf injury he had entering the game and did not play in the second half. J’Mar Smith dislocated his finger and did not play in the second half either.
The biggest loss, though, was Marlon Williams. Williams, the Stallions’ standout receiver from last year who projected to be a star this year, tore his Achilles right before halftime on a drive in which he had three catches for 23 yards, including an incredible one-hander. It was clear the Stallions wanted to get the ball into Williams’s hands early and often. He lined up in the backfield and had two of the first three rushing attempts of the season. Williams will be out for the season, a devastating blow for the Stallions.
The Stallions play the Memphis Showboats at home next Saturday at 6 pm. The Showboats enter the game 0-1 after falling to the Philadelphia Stars 23-27 in a tight home opener. The Stallions and Showboats will rematch for the first time since they last played each other in week 11 of the 1985 season, a game in which the Showboats prevailed 38-24.
What are your thoughts on this game between the Birmingham Stallions and New Jersey Generals? Which USFL players impressed you the most? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!