By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
As he left the interview room at Protective Stadium, Smith let out a loud scream. I smiled then. I knew what he'd just battled through, with the hometown fans willing him and his team to a dramatic victory in the first game of the inaugural United States Football League season.
With 1:49 left in the game, kicker Nick Rose lined up to attempt a 47-yard field goal with the score tied at 21-21. After missing two attempts earlier in the game, Rose nailed his final try to give the Generals a three-point edge.
But it was Smith who put the Stallions in a position to win.
"He did a phenomenal job," Stallions coach Skip Holtz said of the former Louisiana Tech star. "I've been watching him do this for a long time in college. So, it was neat to see him get out on that field and do it."
A three-point lead looked like it would be enough in a game that the Generals dominated for most of the night. New Jersey finished the game with significant advantages in time of possession (37:55 to 22:05), total yards (408 to 277), rushing yards (222 to 72), total plays (73 to 54), third-down and fourth-down conversions.
The Generals even finished the night with the ball in their hands, but time was not on their side as Birmingham held on for the win.
The Stallions did not start in rhythm and finished the first half with just four first downs.
But down three with the game in the balance and less than two minutes left, they found their stride.
"Sometimes it takes a little longer to get in rhythm," said Smith, who led three TD drives in the second half.
Smith speaks from experience. Not only did he not start the game, he opened the contest 0-for-4 and seemed unlikely to complete a pass, let alone lead a comeback victory.
Smith was the second QB selected by the coach he played four years under at Louisiana Tech. And he didn’t buck at all to the notion that Alex McGough was not only the first pick made by the Stallions but the clear starter.
Smith just bided his time, however, and made the most of his opportunity.
"For me," Smith said, "this is just a great opportunity just to play football again. It’s a lot of guys on this team that just want the opportunity, and I'm one of them. Just to get out there with a group of guys who just want to have fun playing the game that we love to play."
Cris Dishman’s New Jersey defense looked like it settled in after allowing its only score in the first half, holding the Stallions to just seven points and creating the first turnover of the season when strong safety Shalom Luani picked off McGough.
McGough, who passed for more than 10,000 yards at Florida International, left the game in the second quarter after suffering an ankle injury. He finished the night just 5-for-10 passing with that INT and a TD.
2. Perez-to-Satterfield could prove lethal for New Jersey
Generals quarterback Luis Perez is one of the best players most fans probably had never heard of until Saturday night.
He completed 12 of 16 passes for 142 yards with two touchdowns in the first half. His first touchdown pass as a General doubled as the first TD and points scored in the USFL.
Perez’s historic pass was caught in the back of the end zone by Lyon product Randy Satterfield, who held onto the ball after taking a shot to the midsection that resulted in a visit from trainers. The ball Satterfield caught was quickly bagged and will make its way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where it will be on display.
The Generals (0-1) hope to reunite with the ball when the USFL championship game is played at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton on July 3. If they can continue to play the kind of football they did on Saturday night at Protective Stadium, it’s a real possibility. But they'll have to figure out how to finish games if they expect to bounce back in Week 2.
Despite the loss, the relationship Perez built with Satterfield on very little practice is encouraging. Perez didn't sign with New Jersey until April 1.
"I'd say then that Satterfield is splashing out there," Generals coach Mike Riley said. "And he is making some plays, and so good for him. Excited for his growth as we go forward."
3. DeAndre Johnson can run
And while Smith came off the bench and eventually acquitted himself well, Generals backup quarterback De'Andre Johnson looked like he would be the reserve to take over the game in the second half.
Johnson accounted for 157 total yards — including 98 on the ground — and proved his coach correct when he said he’d be shocked if the Generals didn’t run the ball well. New Jersey ran for a gaudy 222 yards, averaging five yards per rush.
At one point in the second half, the Generals ran the ball 19 consecutive times.
Making use of Johnson’s legs looked like the plan for Riley and his staff from the moment they drafted him. He was rated the No. 2 pro-style prospect in the 2017 class coming out of high school and had demonstrated legitimate speed, running 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash unofficially at Florida Atlantic
Riley said Perez and Johnson would split reps play-to-play, and the two-QB system worked well at times Saturday night.
"When we got into a certain kind of game today," he said, "and DeAndre obviously fit that real well and was able to do some stuff that was really good."
Johnson's recruitment and journey to the USFL couldn’t be more different than Perez’s.
Perez taught himself to play quarterback by watching YouTube videos before he walked on at Southwestern College, a junior college in Chula Vista, California. He began as the ninth of nine quarterbacks on the depth chart for the Jaguars.
He stuck it out for a year, refusing to change positions because he wanted to be a quarterback. With injuries to some and the transfer of others, and coming back from a broken leg, Perez earned a chance to start the next year.
"He threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns in his first game," Southwestern College coach Ed Carberry told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It was like he was playing Madden Football."
Perez transferred from Southwest College to Texas A&M-Commerce. He sat a year, and then won the starting job in 2016 and began a run that would see him lead the Lions to a Division-II title and his winning the 2017 Harlon Hill Award — equivalent to the Heisman Trophy — after passing for 4,999 yards with 46 TDs and 11 interceptions.
He was undrafted in 2018 and has played in two other spring leagues before Riley called him and asked him to play for his Generals.
Linebacker DeMarquis Gates finished tied for a game-high 10 tackles, including the first sack of the season, and he did it all with a floss pick in his mouth.
In the postgame interview, I asked Stallions linebacker Tae Hayes, who also had 10 tackles, if he noticed Gates’ floss pick.
"I think he did," Hayes said. ‘I said it during the game, ‘Dang, he really does have a toothpick in his mouth.’"
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.