By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Birmingham Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith hasn't lost a game he played in since November 2019, but that winning streak has not come easy. In fact, it has required a measure of heroics from the former Louisiana Tech signal-caller.
For the second time in as many weeks, Smith did just that, leading the Stallions to a 33-28 win against the Houston Gamblers on Saturday night in front of their hometown crowd in the Double Down Derby.
The Stallions remain unbeaten and atop the standings in the South Division (2-0, 1-0). They will be tied with the winner of Sunday’s contest between their division rivals — the New Orleans Breakers and Tampa Bay Bandits.
In the first half, the Stallions called 18 pass plays and came away with 60 yards for their effort. Smith, who hadn't played in a game since he last led La. Tech to a win against Miami in the 2019 Independence Bowl, said he's still working himself back into form.
"My fundamentals are out of whack," Smith said. "Just gotta go back to work this week."
He threw for 214 yards, hitting 19 of 29 attempts with two touchdowns and an interception. But 108 of those yards came on his two TD passes.
With the extra point, the Stallions took a 19-18 lead with 13:26 left in the third quarter. After forcing Houston into a three-and-out, Birmingham walked down the Gamblers in the next series.
Behind an offensive line that found the Houston front seven movable for the first time all night, the Stallions went 78 yards on 11 plays — seven of which were runs — to take a 26-18 lead with a rushing TD by former Coastal Carolina star C.J. Marable with 5:33 left in the third quarter.
Marable ended the night with 76 yards on 16 rushes to lead the Stallions, who ended up with 169 yards on the ground after running the ball just 12 times in the first half.
"Actually," Stallions coach Skip Holtz said, "I came out in the second half and said we're gonna start running the ball. I'm gonna try and slow the game down."
The Gamblers cut the lead to 26-21 late in the third quarter, but the Stallions would buck back.
Smith hit a big pass again, this time finding a streaking Marlon Williams for a 65-yard touchdown pass to extend Birmingham’s lead to 33-21 with 12:55 to play. Williams, who recorded his first catch against the Gamblers, finished the night with 89 receiving yards.
Thorson up and down, like the Gamblers
Gamblers quarterback Clayton Thorson, meanwhile, personified the Gamblers' streaky struggles. One of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Northwestern history, Thorson made both heroic plays and some he'd want to take back, finishing 13 of 27 for 141 yards, two TDs and three interceptions.
Among the good: Thorson made one play out of nothing, avoiding a sack, scrambling to his left and finding wideout Tyler Simmons for a late, 44-yard score — a play that brought the Gamblers back to within five and created the highest-scoring game in USFL history.
Among the bad: He made two throws that felt rushed, forced and without control. One of those was a pass that killed a last-gasp drive when it was tipped and intercepted with 1:01 to play.
The defenses came to play
The first two touchdowns of the game came on explosive defensive plays.
Early in the first quarter, Stallions cornerback Brian Allen picked off Thorson and returned it 48 yards to the end zone.
Minutes later, Gamblers defensive back Will Likely picked off Smith and returned it 62 yards for a TD. The nickel back also added six tackles and a forced fumble, and he even returned kicks and punts for the Gamblers.
"Will tells me every week that he wants to play offense," Gamblers coach Kevin Sumlin said.
If he keeps catching passes like this, he might get his wish.
Each defense acquitted itself well, responsible for a combined 12 of the 53 points scored. They accounted for five total turnovers, too — including four interceptions.
Gates, who joined Smith and Holtz in the postgame media conference, donned aviator shades and a floss pick after the session ended.
A kicker who can hit?
Stallions kicker Brandon Aubrey had never played football before April 16, having played soccer at Notre Dame and later in Major League Soccer.
In just his second game as a specialist for Birmingham, he stopped former standout Pac-12 returner Victor Bolden from running a kick back to the house, putting his head down to make the first tackle of his life.
Following the first "real" football play of his career, Aubrey was asked by FOX Sports' Brock Huard how he made the play.
"I just kind of blacked out and lowered my head," he said.
Holtz said he didn't know what he had in Aubrey, and he liked it that way.
"I’ve learned to leave specialists alone," Holtz said. "And I have learned not to over-coach them. Don’t get in their head. Specialists are unique. And I said this last week, I don't know what we have right now. In Brandon, I don't know. But I'm watching them kick these field goals and watching him kick these extra points, watching him go down and make a tackle. I think he's a guy I need to just continue to leave alone. That’s my mindset at the beginning. I’m gonna stay back."
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.