The 10-week regular season has come and gone, and we've finally reached the USFL playoffs. And the semifinal round in Canton, Ohio, will kick off with the North Division's top two teams, the Philadelphia Stars and the New Jersey Generals.
This will be the second of two straight meetings between those teams and the third overall. Last week, the Generals (9-1) completed the regular-season sweep of the Stars (6-4) with a hard-fought, 26-23 victory. New Jersey also won the first meeting (24-16), back in Week 3, and has won nine in a row overall. These teams know each other pretty well, but the stakes are even higher this time, with the winner advancing to the inaugural USFL Championship.
USFL Semifinal: Philadelphia (6-4) vs. New Jersey (9-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, June 25 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium (Canton, Ohio)
Spread: Generals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Stars' offense vs. the Generals' defense
A big reason why Philadelphia is a win away from playing in the USFL Championship is its offense. Things looked bleak after starting quarterback Bryan Scott went down with a knee injury earlier this season, but Case Cookus stepped in and the rest of the offense followed his lead. Cookus finished the regular season fourth in the USFL in both passing yards (1,334) and completions (130), while he's second in touchdown passes (12). The downside for Cookus is that he's taken the fifth-most sacks (11) and has thrown the fifth-most interceptions (five). But he's not alone in operating head coach Bart Andrus' offense.
Wide receiver Maurice Alexander is No. 2 in the league in all-purpose yards (1,185), tight end Bug Howard is seventh in receiving yards (371), and running back Matt Colburn II is the league's sixth-leading rusher (457 yards). Overall, the Stars boast the No. 1 scoring offense (26.2 ppg), although they didn't reach that average in either of the first two meetings against a New Jersey defense that has been up to the task this season.
The Generals are second in total defense (272.2 ypg) and third in scoring defense (18.2 ppg). The effort is fueled by the No. 1 rushing defense (73.2 ppg), which help offsets the league's most generous passing defense (199.0 ypg). Linebacker D'Juan Hines is among the leading tacklers with 77 total stops (sixth). New Jersey has done a good job of creating turnovers (13, third) but is last in sacks (10). Getting pressure could be a critical point when it comes to slowing down Cookus and the Stars' potent offense.
2. The Generals' offense vs. the Stars' defense
New Jersey's Mike Riley was named USFL Coach of the Year this week after the Generals tied with Birmingham for the league's best record after rattling off nine straight wins following a four-point season-opening loss to the Stallions. Riley's fingerprints are all over New Jersey's offense, which is No. 1 in three of the four major categories — total (349.2 ypg), passing (188.7 ypg, tied with New Orleans), and rushing (160.5 ypg) offense — while ranking third in scoring offense (23.2 ppg). Wide receiver KaVontae Turpin earned Most Valuable Player honors after leading the league in receiving yards (540) and finishing second in receptions (44) and touchdown catches (four). He also was fourth in all-purpose yards (921).
The quarterback duo of Luis Perez and De'Andre Johnson combined to throw for 1,972 yards and 11 touchdowns during the regular season. Accuracy was another strength, with Johnson (72.0 percent) and Perez (71.7) checking in second and third, respectively, in completion rate. Johnson also was second among QBs in rushing yards (310). Running back Darius Victor led the way with nine rushing touchdowns while finishing third in yards (577) and second in carries (126). Fellow back Trey Williams was just ahead of him with 579 yards and added 126 receiving yards (third on the team). So Riley has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
The Generals will once again go up against a Philadelphia defense that's best described as a bend-but-don't-break unit. The Stars finished in the bottom half of every major category (total, scoring, pass, rush) but led the league in total takeaways (22) and interceptions (13) while finishing second in sacks (24). This side of the ball will need to continue to wreak havoc and come up with big plays in order to put an end to New Jersey's winning streak.
3. How this game will be won
The Stars need to strike early and often on offense. They need to take advantage of New Jersey's less-than-stellar pass rush, give the ball to multiple playmakers, and try to tire out the Generals' defense with their fast pace of play. As for their own defense, they need to pressure Perez and Johnson from the opening drive and try to limit the damage that New Jersey can do on the ground.
For the Generals, it's simple: stick to the formula that got you this far. Lean on the run game, only throw the ball when necessary, and rely on the defense to disrupt and confuse Philadelphia's offense.
The Generals won both regular-season meetings by a combined score of 50-39. They did so with a balanced offense, as they went over 400 total yards in each contest. Their defense also made stops when it counted. But it was a more competitive game last week, with the Stars increasing their offensive output compared to the first meeting in Week 3.
However, last week's game meant nothing as far as the standings go, so it's fair to question if New Jersey was fully focused. Also, it's been pretty clear which team has been better throughout the season. Philadelphia keeps this one close, but New Jersey's smashmouth style of play produces a 10th straight win and a spot in the USFL Championship next Sunday.
Prediction: Generals 24, Stars 21
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.