The USFL's regular season is working its way towards the finish line with two weeks to go. Considering both the short-lived Alliance of American Football (AAF) and relaunched XFL were unable to complete a full season in recent years, this development is an encouraging sign for professional football's springtime prospects. It's also a welcome sign for the Birmingham Stallions (8-0), who are just two wins away from going undefeated. The Stallions will look for a second victory over fellow South Division foe Houston (1-7) after beating the Gamblers 33-28 in Week 2.
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Last weekend, Houston put up a great effort but saw its losing streak grow to seven, falling 13-3 to the Tampa Bay Bandits. The Gamblers held Tampa Bay to 214 total yards with Donald Payne and Reggie Northrup (21 combined tackles) making plays all over the field. Kenji Bahar got the start at quarterback and finished with 155 passing yards (19-for-34) and an interception as the offense made just one trip into the red zone.
For Birmingham, it wasn't easy, but the Stallions locked down the South Division title with a 10-9 victory over the New Orleans Breakers. This means that head coach Skip Holtz and his staff can focus on fine-tuning things and maybe resting some starters for the playoffs. While the offense struggled, the defense picked up the slack last Saturday, picking off Breakers quarterback Kyle Sloter three times and limiting the team to just three yards per carry.
Houston (1-7) at Birmingham (8-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, June 11 at 6 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stallions -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Birmingham looking to bounce back on offense
This group needs to turn things around and play cleaner football. With the playoffs looming, the Stallions need to rediscover their dominant form on offense. It starts with quarterback J'Mar Smith, who struggled (15-for-29, 183 yds., TD, INT) against New Orleans as the Breakers' pressure (sacked four times) caused plenty of issues.
In the first meeting with Houston, Birmingham produced a balanced attack, totaling 391 yards and 33 points, despite turning the ball over twice. The Stallions ran for 169 yards, and that should be a focus this time around too, especially with Bo Scarbrough now in the mix. Scarbrough is second on the team with 283 rushing yards even though he's only played in four games. CJ Marable leads the way with 328 and four touchdowns on the ground. Smith also needs to do a better job of connecting with wide receivers Marlon Williams, Victor Bolden Jr., and Osirus Mitchell, who rank in the top 12 in the USFL in receiving yards.
2. Houston needs to gamble on defense
The Gamblers have struggled on offense all season and enter this game last in the league in both total (246.8 ypg) and passing (148.5) yards per game. That puts more pressure on the defense, which has several statistical standouts. Chris Odom is the runaway leader in sacks with 11, and Donald Payne is tops in tackles with 96. Houston is tied for the top spot with 18 takeaways (10 INTs), although some of this is a product of the defense spending so much time on the field. Regardless, pressure and turnovers will be critical if the Gamblers want to have any real shot at pulling off the upset. They also need to do a better job against the run after allowing Birmingham to average 5.1 yards per carry in the first meeting.
3. Can the Birmingham defense keep it rolling this week?
One of the biggest keys for any team that wins a championship in football is its ability to pick each other up. The Stallions weren’t clicking on all cylinders last week on offense against New Orleans, so thankfully the defense stepped up and forced three turnovers. Fast forward to this week, and the script changes a little bit as the defense will be looking to atone for one of its worst performances of the season when Houston scored a season-high 28 points. Birmingham is leading the league with 21 sacks and has forced 15 turnovers, so look for DeMarquis Gates (5.0 sacks, INT) and Co. to build off of last week's performance. For the season, Gamblers quarterbacks Bahar and Clayton Thorson have combined for 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions while being sacked 14 times in eight games.
Birmingham will take a punch or two from the Houston defense within the first couple of series on offense. However, the championship mentality of the Stallions will settle in and get the offense on track in a productive fashion over the final three quarters. Their defense also will get its licks in helping the team win the turnover margin. In the end, look for a methodical victory from Birmingham, which gets one step closer to a perfect regular season.
Prediction: Stallions 23, Gamblers 10
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.