The second half of the USFL season gets underway on Saturday when the Birmingham Stallions and Michigan Panthers meet for the first time. It will be a battle of two teams whose seasons are going in opposite directions, as the Stallions (5-0) have yet to lose and the Panthers (1-4) have lost two straight games and claim just one victory.
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Michigan dropped another hard-fought game, falling 27-20 to Tampa Bay last week. The Panthers' Shea Patterson completed 23 of 37 passes for 304 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Lance Lenoir Jr. caught six passes for 86 yards, and La'Michael Pettway caught five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. The defense limited the Bandits to 273 total yards. However, that effort wasn’t good enough because Patterson was picked off twice and running back Brennan Scarlett lost a fumble while Tampa Bay didn't turn the ball over.
It was a "wash, rinse, repeat" scenario for Birmingham last Sunday. The Stallions fell behind 17-7 against Philadelphia but roared back for an impressive 30-17 win to stay undefeated. Quarterback J'Mar Smith returned after a one-game absence and completed 17 of 22 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown. CJ Marable added 114 rushing yards and a score on 23 carries. The defense limited the Stars to 253 total yards. They averaged a robust 5.6 yards per carry but only had 11 rushing attempts for the game (62 rushing yards total). The turnover battle was even at two apiece, but, otherwise, Birmingham was in complete control, dominating time of possession (38:03 to 21:57) while running nearly 30 more plays (75 to 49) than Philadelphia.
Michigan (1-4) at Birmingham (5-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stallions -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan's offensive balance
The Panthers need some semblance of balance on offense to keep the Birmingham defense at bay. Running the ball would be a great place to start in order to limit the number of possessions in the game. The offensive line also must protect Patterson, as they will have their hands full with reigning Defensive Player of the Week DeMarquis Gates, who continues to create all sorts of havoc for opposing offenses. The receivers can help Patterson out this week by winning individual battles out along the perimeter by creating separation to allow Patterson to make explosive plays against the Stallions' defense. Ball security is going to be another key since the Panthers can’t afford to lose the turnover battle this week.
2. Can Birmingham eat clock again?
If the Stallions are truly the best team in the league, they will prove it this week by putting together four complete quarters of football on offense. Last week was a step in the right direction by generating a balanced attack. Now, they must stack another performance on top of that to create some big-time momentum. Time of possession was huge last week, as the offense held the football for over 38 minutes, which allowed the defense to stay fresh. The running back combination of Marable and Bo Scarborough must be a factor against the physicality of the Michigan defense. They don’t necessarily have to run for 150 yards, but they need to keep the chains moving to open the passing game.
3. Pressuring Shea Patterson
Attack from the opening snap, with Gates and Co. coming off the edge to keep Patterson in the pocket. The last thing the Stallions want to do is let Patterson get comfortable and pick apart the secondary with short-to-intermediate passes that would bleed the clock all night long. Creating turnovers will be important as always because it can cause a significant swing on the scoreboard that can bust things open. Look for the defense to be extra aggressive in trying to rip the ball out from the Michigan running backs to set up a short field for the offense to punch in an extra score or two this week.
Birmingham has an obvious target on their back as the last remaining undefeated team in the USFL. The Stallions have a built-in home field advantage from the local community, which is arguably worth three to six points. Thus, the margin of error for their opponents is less than ideal, as falling behind early could get the crowd noise going. The Panthers still have a shot at the playoffs since they are one game back of Philadelphia in the North Division. So, you can expect the Panthers to play hard early and hang around for a bit in this game. However, Birmingham is going to generate enough of a running game on offense to wear Michigan down and win by a touchdown to improve to 6-0 on the season.
Prediction: Stallions 27, Panthers 20
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.