The USFL pulled off something last year that other football spring leagues could not: Completing a full season. This weekend the league kicked off another campaign, while the XFL continues to.
The USFL season started off with a matchup between the Philadelphia Stars and the Memphis Showboats. The Stars made it to the championship last season, where they fell to the Birmingham Stallions. On Saturday night we saw arguably last season’s two best teams square off, as the Birmingham Stallions hosted the New Jersey Generals. The teams each finished 9-1 in the regular season in 2022. On Saturday, it was all Stallions, as they began their title defense with a bang.
Sunday slate started with the Michigan Panthers’ convincing road win over the Houston Gamblers. Michigan is already halfway to reaching last season’s win total, when it finished 2-8. The first weekend ended with the New Orleans breakers knocking off the Maulers and their new uniforms that fit in with Pittsburgh.
Below we’ve got takeaways from each game so far. First, a look at the Week 1 scores and schedule:
Philadelphia Stars 27, Memphis Showboats 23
Birmingham Stallions 27, New Jersey Generals 10
Michigan Panthers 29, Houston Gamblers 13
New Orleans Breakers 22, Pittsburgh Maulers 15
Breakers 22, Maulers 15
A tight game throughout, the Breakers took the lead for good on McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s two-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Jones with 1:13 left. New Orleans took advantage of good field position after kicker Nathan Hierlihy’s kickoff went out of bounds following Isiah Hennie’s 82-yard, game-tying punt return for the score.
New Orleans, by virtue of the USFL’s rules regarding kickoffs that go out of bounds, took over at midfield with 4:32 to play. The drive’s two big plays came on consecutive snaps, with Bethel-Thompson diving for a key first down before hitting tight end Sage Surratt for 35 yards.
Jones’ touchdown catch three plays later sealed the first career win for first-time head coach and former Eagles Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.
It was a successful USFL debut for the 34-year-old Bethel-Thompson, a two-time Canadian Football League champion who joined with the Breakers this spring instead of spending another season in Winnipeg.
Panthers 29, Gamblers 13
Led by quarterback Josh Love, Michigan scored 20 unanswered points in the second half. Love enjoyed about as good as a game as a quarterback can have. The former San Jose State signal caller went 19 of 21 for 216 yards and three touchdowns. His 90.5% completion percentage snapped a USFL single-game record that had stood since the league’s first iteration back in the early 1980s. The record was previously held by Greg Landry who, prior to his USFL days, was an All-Pro quarterback for the Detroit Lions.
The Panthers pulled away with back-to-back touchdowns drives in the fourth quarter. Michigan’s first scoring drive of the quarter ended with Love’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Trey Quinn. The Panthers’ back-breaking score (which was setup by Breeland Speaks’ forced fumble of Gamblers quarterback Kenji Bahar) was another deep touchdown strike from Love. Wideout Joe Walker was on the receiving end of the 34-yard score.
Love may have stole the show, but Mike Nolan’s defense deserves some love after holding Houston to just 196 total yards. Along with his forced fumble, Speaks tallied three sacks of Bahar, who threw two interceptions on the day.
Stars 27, Showboats 23
The Stars returned star quarterback Case Cookus, running back Matt Colburn II and one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Channing Stribling. Fresh off of a championship run last year, Philly entered this matchup as 2.5-point favorites.
It was indeed the Stars who got off to a quick start, as Cookus and Co. scored touchdowns on three of their four first-half possessions to acquire a 20-10 halftime lead. However, the Showboats got back on track in the second half, and scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives to pull within three points.
White had a chance to lead a game-winning drive for Memphis, and the Showboats even got to the Philly 39-yard line with under a minute to play. However, the Stars defense then stood tall, and the Showboats turned the ball over on downs, which ended the game.
The USFL is the same as the NFL in that premier quarterback play leads to wins. Cookus was magnificent in his first action of the 2023 season, as he completed 20 of 29 passes for 212 yards, three touchdowns, and added 31 yards on the ground. If there were any questions about how he was feeling after breaking his leg in last year’s championship game, those have been answered.
Check out this passing touchdown on third-and-7 late in the third quarter. Cookus stood tall in the pocket, and floated the ball out to the left side of the field for the score.
For the Showboats, the hometown kid, White, completed 16 of 29 passes for 182 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. There were some good moments and bad moments, but check out this touchdown toss to Ryan McDaniel.
White was replaced momentarily by the 6-foot-7 Cole Kelley, who completed 2 of 5 passes for 16 yards. Former NFL running back Alex Collins was rather effective on the ground for Memphis, as he rushed 14 times for 63 yards and one touchdown.
The Memphis pass rush was impressive, as the defense recorded five total sacks on Cookus. Greg Reaves and Jordan Williams recorded two QB takedowns apiece.
Stallions 27, Generals 10
The Generals and Stallions were seen as the top two teams in the league last year, and both squads not only retained their head coaches for this season, but their quarterbacks as well. Birmingham returned about 80% of last year’s roster, but the Stallions opening as five-point favorites was a tad surprising. At least, that’s what some thought until Saturday night.
The Stallions rolled to a 27-10 victory over the Generals, despite injuries to quarterback J’Mar Smith, star linebacker Scooby Wright and wide receiver Marlon Williams, who unfortunately tore his Achilles.
The first half was very back-and-forth. The Generals fumbled away possession to start the game, and the Stallions wasted no time taking advantage. On Birmingham’s first offensive play, Smith hit Austin Watkins for a 61-yard score.
The Generals responded with a touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter — a Dakota Prukop 2-yard scamper. The two teams then traded field goals.
At the end of the first half, the Stallions’ starting quarterback, Smith, suffered an injury, and was replaced by Alex McGough. He threw a touchdown on his first pass of the game to break the tie before the halftime break.
McGough remained in the game to start the second half, and recorded this impressive 29-yard rushing touchdown to give Birmingham a 14-point lead.
This was the last notable score of the game, as the only points scored in the fourth quarter came on a Stallions field goal. Smith finished having completed 10 of 15 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while McGough completed 7 of 11 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. McGough also led the Stallions in rushing with 51 yards and another touchdown. Tight end Jace Sternberger is going to be a good player for Birmingham. He caught five passes for 62 yards and a score.
As for the Generals, reigning league MVP Darius Victor again lived up to the hype, as he rushed for a whopping 84 yards on just eight carries. Prukop completed 13 of 17 passes for 146 yards, while De’Andre Johnson completed 4 of 13 passes for 29 yards, and added 45 rushing yards.
The story of the game for New Jersey was turnovers. The Generals fumbled away possession twice, and the Stallions scored 14 points directly from those giveaways.