Two teams with a great opportunity to assert themselves as contenders in the USFL’s South Division face off Saturday night when the Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers meet. This will be a fun coaching battle between Skip Holtz and Kevin Sumlin, who have faced each other at the college level back in their days as head coaches in Conference USA.
Birmingham (1-0) ignited the local hometown audience with a dramatic come-from-behind 28-24 win over the New Jersey Generals in the USFL's kickoff last Saturday night. The contest drew more than three million viewers to the joint NBC/FOX broadcast, which is impressive considering the USFL was up against the NBA playoffs that night.
On the field, the Stallions made the most of their limited time with the ball, running just 54 plays en route to scoring 28 points. J’Mar Smith stepped up at quarterback in place of the injured Alex McGough, completing 11 of 21 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown.
Houston (1-0) leaned on its defense to secure a 17-12 victory over the Michigan Panthers last Sunday. The Gamblers jumped out to a 17-0 lead at halftime and were able to hold on thanks to three turnovers. The biggest takeaway was an 87-yard, scoop-and-score fumble return for a touchdown by Reggie Northrup in the second quarter that extended Houston's lead to 11-0. Michigan battled back in the second half, scoring a couple of touchdowns but was unsuccessful on both two-point conversion attempts and also missed a pair of field goals. The Gamblers' defense also rose to the occasion late, forcing a turnover on downs on the Panthers' last two possessions.
Birmingham (1-0) at Houston (1-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, Apr. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stallions -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Stallions' passing attack
Patience will be a virtue for Birmingham's offense week against this week against Houston's aggressive, attacking defense. J'Mar Smith should be the starter at quarterback and needs to take what the defense gives him to keep the offense ahead of the sticks. Pass protection is going to be crucial as well, as the Gamblers are going to attack with guys like Northrup and others, looking to create more havoc plays or come up with that timely turnover. The offensive line doesn’t have to win every battle, but it must win most of them. By doing so, it will allow Holtz to use his whole playbook and avoid having to deal with situations where passing the football is a necessity. The Stallions' pass-catching trio of Osiris Mitchell, Victor Bolden Jr., and Cary Angeline must replicate their efforts from last week. This trio combined for 13 receptions, 176 yards, and two touchdowns.
2. Gamblers look to roll the dice more on offense
Houston quarterback Clayton Thorson must find a way to sustain drives this week to keep the Birmingham offense off the field. Last week, the Gamblers ran just 45 plays, averaging 3.9 yards per play while possessing the football for a little more than 22 minutes. Thorson's accuracy could use some work, as he completed nine of his 17 pass attempts (52.9 percent) for a total of 73 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Mark Thompson ran the ball well, gaining 71 yards on 13 carries (5.5 ypc), so you could see offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone come out and emphasize the run early to take pressure off of Thorson. Also, if Thorson continues to struggle, it's possible that backup Kenji Bahar could see more snaps under center.
3. Stallions' defense must make more of a stand
Birmingham's defense needs to do a much better job of getting off the field on Saturday. In Week 1, the Stallions surrendered 408 total yards to New Jersey, as the Generals dominated time of possession (37:55). New Jersey was efficient in the red zone, scoring three touchdowns on four trips inside the 20. DeMarquis Gates led Birmingham's defensive effort with 10 tackles and a sack while Tyree Robinson, Tae Hayes, and JoJo Tillery each made their presence felt. The key for this unit is to make a big jump in their prevention efforts, both in terms of yards and points, and also find a way to come up with some turnovers. If anything, forcing Houston to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns would be a step in the right direction.
The local community did a good job of turning out last Saturday night for the de facto home team, as the Birmingham-New Jersey kickoff game drew 17,500 to Protective Stadium. Whether or not they are the designated home team, the Stallions should enjoy a slight advantage every game. However, Houston's defense is strong enough to cause problems to keep the Gamblers in the game. But it won't be enough this week as Birmingham's offense finds a way to grind out another close victory that goes down to the wire again.
Prediction: Stallions 17, Gamblers 15
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.