By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With just 36 seconds left in the third quarter on Saturday, running back Matt Colburn tore through the middle of Todd Haley’s Tampa Bay Bandits defense, his 33-yard sprint giving the Philadelphia Stars a 28-14 lead.
He wasn’t finished.
In the fourth, he dashed 44 yards to the house to put the Stars up 35-21, and they would eventually hang on for a 35-28 win at Protective Stadium.
Colburn's heroics couldn't have come at a better time. The Stars were without leading rusher Paul Terry and were facing a tough group led by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson.
The Stars came into Saturday's game averaging just over 65 rushing yards per game. Colburn managed to double-up that tally by the end of the third quarter (133), and finished with 140 yards and three rushing TDs. The Stars gained a season-high 198 on the ground.
Colburn’s performance alone is better than any rushing performance the Stars' offense has mustered this season. He is the first non-quarterback to score three TDs in a game this USFL season.
For a team that has leaned heavily on its ability to spread the ball through the air, Colburn’s breakout game was a welcomed addition to coach Bart Andrus’ normally pass-happy game plan.
"I think the biggest thing for us as a group, as a running back group, was really just trusting the scheme," Colburn said. "It’s probably fair to say that we haven't been as successful running the ball up until this game these past couple of weeks."
A first fourth-and-12-from-33 attempt
After scoring with 3:43 left in the game to close the deficit to 35-28, the Bandits elected to become the first team in professional football history to attempt a fourth-and-12 from their own 33-yard line in lieu of an onside kick.
This new USFL rule was designed to give kicking teams a different chance to retain possession on a non-clock-running play.
The Stars gave the Bandits a little help by jumping offsides, making a fourth-and-12 just fourth-and-7.
Tampa quarterback Jordan Ta’amu then took the snap, dropped back, stood in against the blitz and delivered a strike to John Franklin III, but in a matchup that proved pivotal in the first half, Stars cornerback Amani Dennis broke up the pass.
"We ran a fire zone," Dennis said. "And I knew the ball had to come out quickly, and he [Franklin] looked like he was gonna stop for a curl route, and I was outside, so I was able to make a play on the ball and do what I was supposed to."
With just over a minute left to play, Ta’amu found Rashard Davis for a 62-yard gain that put the Bandits on the Philly 5-yard line with 1:18 left to play. But the Bandits fell just that short — five yards — in their bid for a comeback after former Big 12 and SEC 110-meter hurdle champion Jordan Moore ran down Davis to put the Stars in a position to close out the game.
"Jordan is very important to us," Andrus said. "Not just on defense, but he's a team captain. He's a guy that everybody listens to and looks up to. And it was great seeing him make that play at the end. He didn't give up, and you got a linebacker chasing down a wide receiver."
Turnover plague Bandits
In the first quarter, Ta’amu sailed a pass over Franklin’s head, and Dennis was there to pick it off. The Stars took over possession on the 10-yard line.
The Stars' offense punched in the gift Ta’amu gave them with a pass from Case Cookus to tight end Bug Howard from six yards out. They were welcome points for the Stars after they were shut out of the second half of their last outing against the Birmingham Stallions. It was Howard’s third TD reception in six games.
Cookus and Howard later combined on a second TD to put the Stars up 21-14 in the third quarter. Through the middle of the third quarter, 36 of Cookus’ 65 yards passing were thrown to Howard.
The Bandits struggled to get much out of their passing offense to start the game, ending the first quarter with -7 yards through the air.
The Bandits also started their first three drives deep in their own territory — the 28-yard line, the 5-yard line and the 10-yard line. But with just over two minutes left in the half, Ta’amu went back to Franklin for a TD that tied the score at 7-7 heading toward the two-minute warning.
But Colburn and the Stars didn’t need long to retake the lead, driving 64 yards in just over a minute. Colburn finished the scoring drive with a 3-yard rush, giving him 42 rush yards on just seven carries for what is the worst rushing offense in the league.
The Bandits caught fire then. With just over a minute left in the half, Ta’amu led the offense down the field, hitting tight end Cheyenne O’Grady with a 37-yard TD pass to tie the game at 14-14 with just seven seconds left in the second quarter.
After his first five passes fell incomplete or were picked off, Ta'amu completed 12 of his next 13 passes for 125 with two TDs.
In addition to Ta’amu’s first-quarter interception, an opportunistic Stars defense also forced two fumbles. Two of Philadelphia’s first three TDs came off of those turnovers.
Ta’amu completed 27 of 40 pass attempts for 333 passing yards and four TDs. He was sacked three times.
Haley said he was happy with the play of Ta’amu, who passed for 333 yards and accounted for four touchdowns. But he lamented missed opportunities and turnovers in a game in which the Bandits put up more than 400 yards of offense and outgained their opponent by nearly 250 yards through the air.
"We can't throw an interception early like that and give them an early lead," he said. "We can't fumble the football when we’re handing it off. It’s gonna be very hard to win."
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.