Case Cookus, Stars roll past Panthers, clinch playoff spot
Case Cookus dominated with his arm and legs, leading the Stars past the Panthers and to a playoff berth, Eric D. Williams writes.
By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Case Cookus needed some air after galloping 79 yards for a touchdown.
"In college or professional football that’s by far my farthest run," Cookus said.
His meandering run through a tired Michigan Panthers defense with 5:19 left put a stamp on a dominating performance in the Philadelphia Stars’ 46-24 victory on Sunday at Legion Field.
The win clinched a postseason berth and a trip to Canton, Ohio for the Stars, who improved to 5-3 on the year. The loss dropped the Panthers to 1-7 and eliminated them from postseason consideration.
"Those kinds of moments, it’s why these guys play this game," Stars head coach Bart Andrus said about his team’s celebration in the locker room after the game. "You have to hold onto those type of memories."
Cookus finished 20-for-26 passing for 247 yards and four touchdowns. He also totaled 118 rushing yards and a score. Even better, Cookus did not turn the ball over.
The 46 points by Philadelphia was the most scored in the USFL this season.
How hot was Cookus? Early in the fourth quarter, Cookus shook off a Michigan would-be pass rusher, stepped up in the pocket and hit tight end Pro Wells for a pretty, 51-yard strike between two Panthers for a touchdown.
In seven games this season, Cookus has completed 65.4% of his passes for 1,028 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cookus also has just three interceptions. The way he’s played of late, Cookus could perhaps lay claim to being the top quarterback in the USFL at this point.
And he’ll get the chance to finish out the season as Philadelphia’s starting quarterback, with the Stars placing former starter Bryan Scott on the season-ending injured reserve with a knee issue.
"He’s come in and in a professional manner learned what we are doing," Andrus said about Cookus. "And if you play at this level, you’re going to be able to lead a team."
Running back Matt Colburn II also had a big day offensively for the Stars, totaling 97 scrimmage yards and two scores.
For the Panthers, a healthy Paxton Lynch returned to the starting lineup. The University of Memphis product finished 27-for-40 for 251 yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Lynch also lost a fumble at the goal line.
Case Cookus links up with Matt Colburn on a 20-yard TD
Another Channing Stribling INT
Stribling got another takeaway in the second half, on an out route intended for Michigan receiver Lance Lenoir Jr.
Stribling said his league-leading sixth interception was set up by film study during the week, as he baited Lynch into thinking the route was open.
"Watching film, I noticed they like to run a lot of out routes," Stribling said. "I was telling our players that you’ve got to let them catch a couple and get comfortable. So, I kind of let them catch a couple and get into a rhythm a little bit. And once I see a three-step and open up, I’m already up out of there."
Added Andrus: "He has one of the quickest first steps out of a back pedal that I’ve ever seen in football."
The Stars finished with two interceptions on the day, and Philadelphia’s offense turned both of those miscues into touchdowns.
Jeff Fisher encouraged by reports on condition of Tre Williams
Early in the third quarter, Michigan Panthers edge rusher Tre Williams lay motionless on the field for several minutes. He had to be taken off the field on a backboard and stretcher, and was transported to the University of Alabama-Birmingham medical center.
Panthers head coach Jeff Fisher said that Williams has movement and he’s encouraged by the reporters he’s heard about his condition.
"Regardless of who you are or where you’ve been — no matter how many years you’ve got or what level — the reality of that when that takes place before your eyes is hard to deal with," Fisher said. "Nobody wants to see that. But our guys, and the defensive line especially, they were going to take the game in their hands on his behalf. So, we’re praying for Tre and hopefully we continue to hear good news."
In other injury news, Michigan safety Kieron Williams suffered a shoulder issue early in the second quarter and had to leave the game, but later returned. Panthers center Sean Pollard suffered a right ankle injury and had to leave the game. He did not return.
And Michigan running back Reggie Corbin suffered an elbow injury in the first half and did not return.
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.