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Birmingham (4-0) stayed undefeated and maintained control of the South Division with a 16-10 win over Tampa Bay last weekend. It was more of a defensive struggle than may have been expected, but the Stallions overcame a three-point halftime deficit and made the necessary plays to secure the victory. However, if they aren’t careful, the formula of a slow start and a fast finish will eventually cost this team at some point.
Philadelphia (2-2) also earned a hard-fought W, eking out a 26-25 victory over Michigan last Friday night. The Stars were the beneficiaries of Michael Carrizosa's potential game-winning 21-yard field goal going off of the left upright as time expired. Quarterback Case Cookus filled in nicely for the injured Bryan Scott, completing 22 of 30 passes for 190 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The defense stepped up and forced four turnovers, including three interceptions of the Panthers' Shea Patterson. Those takeaways played a huge role in getting the win and will be a factor to watch moving forward.
Birmingham (4-0) at Philadelphia (2-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, May 15 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stallions -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Birmingham D needs to show up
If the Stallions' offense sputters like it did last week, then it will be even more important for the defense to do its part. Even with the No. 2 quarterback in there, Philadelphia showed what it's capable of last week against Michigan's usually stingy D. Birmingham was without linebacker DeMarquis Gates, who leads the team with 2.5 sacks and is second in tackles, last week and his status for Sunday is uncertain. But running mate Scooby Wright picked up the slack and then some, earning Defensive Player of the Week honors after registering six tackles (three for a loss) and a sack in the win over Tampa Bay. The defense did a great job of forcing the Bandits to be one-dimensional, holding them to 53 rushing yards on 20 attempts (2.6 ypc). Following Case Cookus' solid showing against the Panthers, it may not be the worst strategy for the Stallions to almost dare the Stars to try and run the ball and see what happens.
2. Can the Stars' D light up the Stallions?
Philadelphia cornerback Channing Stribling leads the league with four interceptions, two of those coming last week. As a team, the Stars have picked off six passes and the secondary must continue its ball-hawking ways as they look to slow down a Birmingham offense that is averaging more than 300 yards per game and still leads the USFL in scoring (24.8 ppg) despite some recent struggles. Starting quarterback Alex McGough was injured early in the season and J'Mar Smith replaced him, but Smith missed last week's game due to illness. McGough completed 14 of his 26 pass attempts for only 126 yards. Smith has been much more productive throwing the ball, averaging 193.7 passing yards per game with five touchdowns and only two interceptions before sitting out last week. Whoever is at quarterback, Philadelphia needs to try and put pressure on him, to disrupt the passing game and keep playmakers like Victor Bolden Jr. from having a big impact.
3. Stallions may look to stay grounded
With some quarterback uncertainty, Birmingham head coach Skip Holtz may lean more on the running game this week. The Stallions also probably want to avoid getting into a potential high-scoring, back-and-forth affair with Philadelphia after managing just 16 points last week. Against Tampa Bay, Birmingham totaled 126 rushing yards on 31 carries. CJ Marable continues to lead the way on the ground with 189 total yards but he's averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. Smith also was missed in this respect as he's third on the team in rushing (101 yards) and is averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. However, Holtz draws it up, a successful running game will keep Philadelphia's pass rush at bay and take pressure off of Gough, who has struggled since returning from injury, or Smith, who may not quite be back to 100 percent himself.
Look for both teams to trade touchdowns early on in this game in an attempt to size the other up. This week, the Stallions will avoid the trap of falling behind early and keep the lead heading into halftime. After that, things will eventually break open for Birmingham as the offense rediscovers its footing. Philadelphia puts forth a valiant effort, giving the Stars something to build on despite the undesired outcome.
Prediction: Stallions 23, Stars 17
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.