The USFL Semifinals will wrap up on Saturday night with a South Division showdown between the New Orleans Breakers and the Birmingham Stallions at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. These two teams have already met twice this season, with Birmingham (9-1) sweeping New Orleans (6-4) by a combined score of 32-22.
It was a tough way to end the regular season for the Breakers, as they lost 20-3 to the Houston Gamblers last Sunday night. First, they had to play without quarterback Kyle Sloter, whom head coach Larry Fedora gave the week off. Sloter's absence had an adverse effect on the offense. New Orleans generated 116 total yards, including just 44 passing. The defense played well considering the circumstances, limiting the Gamblers to 168 yards and forcing two turnovers, but it wasn't enough to get the job done.
Birmingham did a nice job of getting back on the winning track, beating Tampa Bay 21-18 after seeing suffering its first loss in Week 9 to Houston. It was a faster start for the Stallions, who jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead. They took their foot off the gas a little bit in the second half, and it nearly cost them as the Bandits made things interesting. Quarterback Alex McGough completed 14 of 25 passes for 183 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, with J'Mar Smith also seeing snaps but leaving after suffering an injury. The defense gave up 285 yards but did enough to get the job done. Tae Hayes led the way with six tackles, an interception, and three passes defended in the game. It also didn't help that Birmingham was minus-three (four giveaways, one takeaway) in the turnover department. That obviously can't continue if the Stallions want a shot at winning the USFL title.
USFL Semifinal: New Orleans (6-4) vs. Birmingham (9-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, June 25 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium (Canton, Ohio)
Spread: Stallions -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Stallions' offense looks to get back on track
Smith is expected to start again at quarterback after leaving last week's game because of injury. He struggled (3-for-8, 72 yds., INT) before departing, but this was in a game that had no bearing on the playoff standings. Birmingham's offense revolves around the running game, which averaged 4.4 yards per carry (29 attempts) last Saturday. Ball security will be an additional point of emphasis after losing two fumbles (six total) to go along with two interceptions (one each by Smith and McGough). In the first win over New Orleans in Week 3, the Stallions turned the ball over just once (+2 margin for the game) and won by nine points (22-13). In the second meeting, they had three (Breakers also had three) and the final score was 10-9. Birmingham also managed just one touchdown in six total red-zone visits in those two games, so finishing drives will be another critical factor.
2. How will New Orleans' offense respond to a tough end to the regular season?
The Breakers come into this game scoring a total of 29 points over the final three games of the regular season. Thus, we are going to find out about Fedora's ability to motivate at the professional level. Will fans in Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium see a motivated team looking to avoid losing three times to Birmingham or a team that is ready for the season to be over? With the expected return of Sloter this week, it should jump-start the offense and the team. Another thing that will help is for Fedora to stay patient with the running game and keep pounding away with Jordan Ellis (league's leading rusher with 596 yds.) and the rest of the running backs. Even if you don't gain a lot of yards early in the game, the eventual wear and tear of running the football should help open up things for Sloter and the passing game. Wide receiver Johnnie Dixon and tight end Sal Canella need to do their part as New Orleans needs to put forth a balanced attack to earn its first win over Birmingham.
3. Stallions' defense looks to make a stand in Canton
DeMarquis Gates leads a balanced unit that has always found a way to make big plays when necessary. Gates led the Stallions in tackles (62) and sacks (6.5) and leads the USFL in tackles for a loss (11), which earned him a spot on the All-USFL Team. Gates must set the tone this week by generating pressure on Sloter early and often to get the Breakers' passing attack out of sync. Winning the turnover battle has been key for Birmingham throughout this season, and the defense generated six takeaways (four INTs, two fumbles) in the first two meetings with New Orleans. Keep an eye on guys like Josh Shaw, Tyree Robinson, Scooby Wright III, and Lorenzo Burns, as each is capable of coming with a game-changing play.
Fans will get a better sense of how good the Stallions really are as this will be the team's first game outside of the city of Birmingham. The Stallions have been consistent and are a deserving champion of the South Division. Now, the question is, can they take it on the road to a neutral site and put together four consistent quarters of football? New Orleans has the advantage in that it's typically a difficult task to beat the same team three times. Because of this, the Breakers won't lack for motivation, and defense should help keep them in the game. However, the difference will be a Birmingham offense that's eager to put forth a better effort. Smith's return will energize the unit and the passing attack will come up with enough big plays to sneak out a one-score win to advance to the USFL Championship on July 3.
Prediction: Stallions 17, Breakers 13
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.