Defense, depth, experience: Birmingham Stallions show why they're champs in opener

Defense, depth, experience: Birmingham Stallions show why they're champs in opener

Apr 16

By RJ Young
FOX Sports USFL Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The champs threw down a marker at Protective Stadium on Saturday night.

The Birmingham Stallions knocked off the New Jersey Generals, 27-10, behind another signature defensive performance, plus an offense that does just enough to win. All of it underscores how they became last year’s USFL champions and, presently, how they plan to defend their title.

The Stallions forced a turnover on the Generals’ first possession of the game after Nate Holley knocked the ball free from Braeden Bowman.

Then, with their first offensive play of the 2023 season, Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith hit USFL newcomer Austin Watkins for a 61-yard TD throw and catch. It was Watkins' only catch of the game, but it set the tone.

Birmingham’s Iron Curtain

After the fumble and long TD allowed within the first three minutes of the season, things didn't get much better for the Generals. Their next four possessions ended in punts, and they converted just four of their first 12 third downs into first downs.

Generals quarterback Dakota Prukop was solid in splitting time with starter De'Andre Johnson, completing 13 of his 17 passes for 148 yards. But in the third quarter and trailing just 17-10, Prukop surrendered a fumble that changed the game. 

After the Stallions recovered, they hit New Jersey with an explosive play, with Stallions quarterback Alex McGough rushing for a 29-yard TD to put Birmingham ahead 24-10.

While the Generals made four trips inside the Stallions' 20, they scored on just one of them.

For Generals coach Mike Riley, the reason for the loss was simple. 

"It's a game that when you put a whole bunch of stats together from a whole bunch of games and you look at penalties and turnovers, it doesn't change," he said. "They [penalties and turnovers] play a major, major factor in games, the other ones big plays, you know, and they hit one right off the bat and put us on our heels. I loved how we responded to that. However, you know, I think we have a good football team. I just don't think we played well enough consistently [tonight]."

With 6:49 left to play, the Stallions let kicker Brandon Aubrey put the game out of reach at 27-10 with a 49-yard field goal, his field goal of the evening.

Veteran leadership — and depth — on display

In last season's opener between these teams, McGough was forced to leave the game due to injury after just eight offensive snaps. 

On Saturday, he came off the bench in place of Smith late in the second quarter, putting the Stallions up 17-10 just before the half with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jace Sternberger.

McGough ended up completing 7 of 11 passes for 68 yards and also led the Stallions in rushing yards with 52 on just five carries, scoring twice on the ground. His ability to extend plays and manipulate the middle of the defense with his speed created an advantage for the Stallions and a headache for the Generals' defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell.

With Sternberger, along with wideouts Davion Davis and Myron Mitchell, Holtz’s passing attack demonstrated the strength of the team’s depth, depending on three newcomers to carry them offensively while their run game produced just 88 yards on 21 carries.

Sternberger caught all five of his targets for 62 yards and his first USFL TD from his roommate, McGough. Sternberger's contributions demonstrated the kind of talent on display in the USFL, and just how difficult it can be to make a roster in this league.

Sternberger left Texas A&M as a consensus All-American tight end. In training camp with the Stallions, though, he was told he was already behind.

"I think Jace owes everything to his roommate during camp," Holtz said. "(McGough) was meeting with him quite a bit. The biggest thing for Jace was trying to catch him up mentally, because we've got this offense and everybody else had it for a year. He's just not learning it. I mean, he's kind of got on the roller coaster halfway down the hill.

"We made the comment during camp that if you're a new guy, you better get the playbook because we are teaching to the veterans, not to the rookies. Last year we started with two-plus-two-is-four. We started with division and multiplication this year."

The newcomers caught up in a hurry and made their head coach’s job difficult.

"We were able to bring 58 players to camp," Holtz said. "It was hard to get to 50. It's even harder trying to make 10 guys inactive because you know they’re good enough to play. And I think that's the biggest difference between this year and last year. 

"Last year you had receivers that played 65 plays a game because the difference from one to two [on the depth chart] was huge. This year I don't care which ones they rotate in, and I’d say the same thing about the secondary."

Injuries abound

The Stallions won despite dealing with significant injuries on offense and defense.

Last year’s leading receiver, Marlon Williams, tore his right Achilles tendon, left the game just before halftime, and is likely out for the season. Linebacker Scooby Wright was forced to the sideline early in the first half and for the remainder of the game with a calf strain that hampered him all week in practice. Smith left the game in the second quarter after dislocating a finger on his non-throwing hand.

But the Stallions managed a resounding win while down multiple starters against one of the toughest teams in the North Division from last season. 

Depth, continuity of coaches and veteran leadership might be the hallmarks of the 2023 USFL champions, and the Birmingham Stallions beginning the season 1-0 is the first of many steps to earning that title, according to Holtz.

"​​We talked a lot about at the very beginning, we're not defending anything, we're gonna get what we earned," Holt said.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.

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