By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Birmingham Stallions coach Skip Holtz wanted folks sitting inside the media conference room at Protective Stadium to know that he’s happy.
He’s happy his team came from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Maulers 26-16 on Sunday. He’s happy that his team improved to 7-0, and he’s happy his team became the second to earn entry into the playoffs before Memorial Day.
"But," he said, "I heard way too many ‘my bads’ out there."
Holtz said he can deal with physical mistakes. He just can’t abide mental ones.
Flanked by fullback Bobby Holly and running back Bo Scarbrough, Holtz turned to Holly.
"Bobby, what do I say about saying ‘my bad’?" Holtz asked.
"You say ‘I don’t want your bad. I want your best.’"
Even so, the Stallions’ bad has proven to be good enough to beat the teams in front of them — sooner or later.
When asked how he felt about putting together his second-straight 100-yard rushing performance, Scarbrough was nonplused.
"I didn’t even know I’d rushed for 100 yards," he said.
Well, he did, with most of the damage being done after intermission.
After rushing for just 31 yards on 11 carries in the first half, Scarbrough finished the game with 27 rushes for 100 yards.
His presence forced the Maulers to stop the run, which gave quarterback J’Mar Smith a chance to hit just enough passes with a depleted wide receiving corps to become the second team to punch a playoff ticket for Canton, Ohio.
Holtz said he wanted Smith to take more shots downfield. On the opening drive, he uncorked a 53-yard pass he dropped into the bucket for Victor Bolden, who made the catch over his shoulder. That was the best Smith looked all day. He completed just nine of 24 pass attempts for 138 yards and threw an interception.
But kicker Brandon Aubrey turned the big play into three points to give Birmingham an early 3-0 lead.
The Maulers responded, looking to become the latest team to take advantage of the Stallions' habit of starting slow. Riding running back Madre London, the Maulers (1-6) took a 7-3 lead against the best team in the league with 3:03 left in the first. That was the largest lead Pittsburgh had held all season.
The Maulers would later extend their lead to 10-3 with just over eight minutes left in the half, but they could have been in even better shape if Maulers' quarterback Vad Lee had not been stripped and sacked by Willie Henry in the red zone.
Before the Stallions closed the distance before the half with a field goal to make it 10-6.
A fake punt and a kicking clinic
Just as the game looked like it would feature more of the same, Holtz called a fake punt.
Holly, in his personal protector role, sprinted 52 yards through the middle of the Maulers' punt return team for a score that put the Stallions up 13-10 with 12:27 left in the third quarter.
"I think the quarter was about over by the time he got to the end zone," Holtz joked.
Turns out, Holly wasn’t supposed to make that play. Holtz said the punt team didn’t get the look it wanted, and Holly was supposed to check out of the fake.
In the media conference, Holly stuck up for himself, though, turning to Holtz.
"You tell us you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take," Holly said.
Holtz admitted that was true.
Holtz selected QB Alex McGough with his first pick in the inaugural USFL Draft. He expected the man who had passed for more than 6,200 yards and holds records for pass attempts and passing touchdowns at Florida International to be his starter.
But after suffering an ankle injury in Week 1, McGough split time with Smith. Over the course of the season, Holtz steadily moved toward making Smith, his former starting quarterback at Louisiana Tech, the starter.
McGough, though, wanted to help the team, and they certainly needed the help. The Stallions started the game without deep-threat Marlon Williams and Bolden missed the second half with an injury.
Limitations of the Birmingham roster and the need for capable hands at receiver forced Holtz to try McGough at the slot receiver position. And it nearly worked.
McGough managed to draw a pass interference penalty. But he later watched a pass from Smith go through his hands. Bryce Torneden picked it off and returned it to the Stallions' 21 yard-line, setting up a field goal that tied things at 13-13 with 4:10 left in the third.
River(s boat) gamble
Late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh coach Kirby Wilson had seen enough from quarterback Vad Lee, who had completed just six of 14 passes for 58 yards.
Wilson turned to backup quarterback Roland Rivers, who while at Slippery Rock had won the 2019 Harlon Hill Award winner — given to FCS most valuable player.
Rivers, who signed with the Maulers on Tuesday, came into the game with 4:37 left to play and a chance to win, but just one minute and 25 seconds later, they turned the ball over on downs. Rivers finished 3-for-9 for 25 yards.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.