It's Round 2 between Birmingham and New Orleans in Week 8 of the USFL season on Saturday afternoon. These two South Division foes met back in Week 3 with the Stallions grinding out a 22-13 win over the Breakers. A win for Birmingham (7-0) would lock up the division title with two weeks to play, while an upset would allow New Orleans (5-2) to punch its own playoff ticket and add a little more intrigue to the South standings.
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A little bit of trickery proved to be the difference for Birmingham last week in a 26-16 win over the Pittsburgh Maulers. Bobby Holly ran for a 52-yard touchdown off a fake punt on the first possession of the second half, and the defense limited Pittsburgh to just two second-half field goals on six drives to help secure the victory. Overall, it wasn't the prettiest of efforts for the undefeated Stallions. J'Mar Smith was 9-for-24 passing for 138 yards and an interception. Bo Scarborough, who joined the team midseason, led the way on the ground with 100 yards on 27 carries.
On the other side, it was a "survive and advance" type of day for New Orleans, outlasting the Michigan Panthers 31-27 in the first USFL game decided in overtime. The game featured three lead changes in the fourth quarter alone, as the Panthers gave the Breakers all they could handle. After Michigan missed a 54-yard field goal that would have stretched the lead to six points, New Orleans took the ball and drove 48 yards with less than two minutes remaining for Taylor Bertolet's game-tying 26-yard field on the last play of regulation.
In overtime, Breakers quarterback Kyler Sloter completed one two-point conversion and then ran another in, and the defense kept the Panthers out of the end zone on their two attempts in the unique, shootout-style overtime. Sloter was solid overall, completing 15 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, but the running game averaged less than four yards per carry while the Panthers piled up nearly 200 yards on the ground. That helped Michigan dominate time of possession (38:47 to 21:13), something New Orleans definitely needs to improve on if the Breakers hope to upset Birmingham.
New Orleans (5-2) at Birmingham (7-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, June 4 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stallions -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Stallions' defense aiming for a repeat performance
When Birmingham defeated New Orleans 22-13 in Week 3, it was in large part due to a strong defensive effort. In that game, the Stallions forced three turnovers and limited the Breakers to 3.8 yards per play. This was critical considering New Orleans ran a total of 83 plays (compared to 70 for Birmingham) and had the ball for 32:23 of the game. Pressure on Sloter also was key, as the Stallions brought him down four times, half of those by Dondrea Tillman, and picked him off once. Four different defenders registered double-digit tackles against the Breakers, led by Scooby Wright III's 17.
2. New Orleans' offense hoping to break through
The Breakers enter this game second in the USFL in total offense at 341.3 yards per game. They also are third in scoring with 167 points. However, Birmingham held this offense to just 13 points in the first meeting back in Week 3 despite running 83 plays. Three turnovers were costly, but New Orleans also managed just 2.9 yards per carry. That put more pressure on Sloter, who completed 26 of 47 passes (55.3 percent) for 241 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Birmingham harassed him throughout the game and sacked him four times. Look for Breakers head coach Larry Fedora to draw up shorter passes in an effort to neutralize the Stallions' pass rush and speed up the tempo. Running back Jordan Ellis also needs to do his part. He's second in the league in rushing with 478 yards, but that's partially due to his volume (league-high 115 carries). In the first meeting, he gained 90 yards on 25 carries (3.6 ypc).
3. Birmingham staying grounded
One of the most effective ways for the Stallions to slow down New Orleans' offense is to use their ground game to control the clock. Birmingham is third in the league in rushing offense at 145.4 yards per game with Scarbrough giving head coach Skip Holtz yet another option in the backfield. In just three games, Scarbrough has gained 229 yards on 50 carries (4.6 ypc). He teams with CJ Marable (308 yds., 4 TDs) for a potent 1-2 backfield punch, with Tony Brooks-James averaging 5.5 yards per carry in limited touches. Smith (4.6 ypc) also can make things happen with his legs at quarterback. If the Stallions can run the ball effectively, it should help wear down the Breakers, especially with the weather getting warmer in the deep south, while also keeping their own D fresh.
This should be another tightly contested battle between the two best teams in the South Division. Points could be hard to come by again, especially if Birmingham makes a concerted effort to run the ball to keep the clock moving. Scarbrough didn't play in the first meeting, and he alone could be enough of a difference-maker based on his early contributions. Sloter will do his best to keep New Orleans in the game with his arm, but the Stallions will find a way to stay undefeated and secure the division title.
Prediction: Stallions 24, Breakers 19
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.