MEMPHIS — They had nothing to play for but pride in the final game of the regular season.
The Birmingham Stallions had already clinched a playoff berth, as well as the right to be the home team next week in the South Division Championship.
Stallions head coach Skip Holtz said he gave his players the option to sit out Saturday's regular-season finale against the Memphis Showboats. Everyone, including starting quarterback and leading MVP candidate Alex McGough, chose to play — a good omen for the Stallions.
The dynamic duo of McGough and tight end Jace Sternberger connected on a 46-yard touchdown with a little under five minutes left to lift the Stallions over the host the Showboats, 27-20 at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
The loss eliminated Memphis (5-5) from playoff contention and ensured the defending USFL champion Stallions (8-2) will have the No. 1 seed heading into the postseason.
Even though McGough left himself vulnerable to injury in a meaningless game by running the football a few times — including getting flipped over on a run up the middle of the field in the first half — Holtz said the risk was worth the reward of keeping his team's momentum and rhythm going into the postseason.
"Hopefully, it was a learning lesson for him," Holtz said about McGough. "He's a competitor, but he's just not invincible. And I don't want to find out the hard way that's actually a fact.
"I'm glad they didn't all have the option because I wouldn't have had the option to sit everybody. But he wants to win. He wants to compete."
Memphis jumped on the Stallions early when speedy return man Derrick Dillon zig-zagged his way across the field for a 90-yard kick return for a score on the opening kickoff. Dillon finished with 236 return yards on six kick returns.
Dillon also had a 109-yard return for a score off a missed field goal earlier this season.
"He's not a one-trick pony," said Memphis coach Todd Haley, who believes Dillon should get an NFL audition next month. "He's got a lot of tricks. He can run routes, he can catch. He can do a lot of things."
The Showboats held that lead for most of the game, as the Stallions turned the ball over three times in Memphis territory. However, the Stallions took their first lead with 33 seconds left in the third quarter on an 18-yard bolt through the middle of the Memphis defense by C.J. Marable, putting the Stallions up 20-17 heading into the final quarter.
On the ensuing possession, Memphis kicker Alex Kessman striped a 45-yard field goal to tie the score at 20-all, his 21st straight field goal this season. But with a chance to take the lead, Kessman missed what would have been the go-ahead score, hooking a 40-yard field goal wide left with 7:16 remaining to play.
The Stallions took the ball and quickly drove 70 yards on five plays, with the big play being a long pass from McGough to Sternberger on a corner route.
Sternberger finished with four catches for 84 yards, the touchdown making up for a costly fumble earlier in the fourth quarter. Receiver Davion Davis led the Stallions with nine catches for 114 yards on 11 targets.
McGough finished 22-of-33 for 282 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 32 yards.
For Memphis, quarterback Cole Kelley completed 20 of 30 passes for 154 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Running back Ezra Gray had a nice game running the football with starter Kerrith Whyte out nursing an ankle injury, totaling 82 rushing yards on 16 carries, including a long of 37 yards.
Showboats embraced in first year in Memphis
The Showboats were welcomed by football fans locally in the USFL's return to Memphis, experiencing home-field advantage for the first time after playing all their games in Birmingham as the Tampa Bay Bandits last season.
"I loved having the home crowd," Dillon said. "Coming out playing, you've got people cheering for you. It's amazing because it brings crazy energy to the team and the whole stadium. Instead of last year, when we had no crowd, it was crickets. It wasn't fun at all."
Memphis consistently had a core group of fans show up for home games this season. The USFL already committed to Memphis continuing as one of the league hubs to host games in 2024. The Showboats started the season 0-3 but finished the year winning five of their last seven games. Memphis went 2-3 at home.
Haley hosted a weekly radio show in Memphis and enjoyed the comradery built by his team traveling to different hub cities by plane like Canton and Detroit, along with bus trips to Birmingham.
"I don't want to say we were jealous last year at times, but we were," joked Haley. "We got to see the fans that Birmingham got to have come out and cheer them on. There wasn't one of these home games that I didn't look up in the crowd and just think, ‘This is awesome.' And they are sitting out there in 100-degree, real-feel temperatures.
"Last week, with the three-hour rain delay still a lot of people came back. That tells you this is a cool town, and we've had a phenomenal experience."
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.