Stallions are first to clinch playoff berth with easy win vs. Gamblers

MEMPHIS — Birmingham Stallions head coach Skip Holtz had an epiphany at halftime with his offense scuffling, hanging on to a one-point lead over the pesky Houston Gamblers.

How about putting the ball in the hands of quarterback Alex McGough, his best player and the USFL's leading MVP candidate?

"I looked at (the stats) and said you know what, Skip Holtz you’re an idiot," joked Holtz. "One of the best players on your football team has touched the ball 10 times. And that’s when I said, I need to put the ball in his hands. I need to drop back, let him see the field and take advantage of what they were giving us." 

It worked. McGough finished 13-of-21 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 42 yards on the way to a 38-15 victory on Sunday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, a win that also clinched a playoff spot for the defending champs. 

The Stallions outscored the Gamblers 28-6 in the second half. The Gamblers entered Sunday’s contest having won five of their last six games, and Houston was responsible for two of Birmingham’s three losses over the last two seasons.

But none of that mattered because the Stallions showed they are on a mission to repeat as USFL champs.

Birmingham’s victory also ensures the South Division championship will be held at Protective Stadium in Birmingham on Sunday, June 25 at 7 p.m. ET on FOX. However, all three other teams in the South Division still have a path to clinch the second playoff berth in the final week of the regular season next week.

Birmingham improved to 7-2 with the victory, while the Gamblers dropped into a tie with the Memphis Showboats at 5-4. The New Orleans Breakers, 31-3 winners over Memphis on Saturday, sit at 6-3. 

The Gamblers turned the ball over three times, including a fluky fumble midway through the fourth quarter. On that play, scrambling quarterback Kenji Bahar lost control of the football while going to the ground. The ball popped loose and Birmingham safety Matt Hankins, who just joined the team, caught it in midair and ran 32 yards for a score. 

The Gamblers had a 38:21-21:39 advantage in time of possession. However, Houston finished 0-for-5 in the red zone and had to settle for five field goals from kicker Nick Vogel. The Gamblers trailed 10-9 at halftime but could have built a decent lead if they had capitalized on three turnovers by Birmingham — a McGough interception by Dayan Lake on an out route intended for Birmingham receiver Davion Davis, a fumble by C.J. Marable on a bad option pitch by McGough, and a fumble by Deon Cain on a kick return. 

Houston turned those miscues into nine points but should have put more on the scoreboard, according to Gamblers coach Curtis Johnson.

"That’s a great football team," Johnson said. "They were champs last year. You know if you don’t score touchdowns and put them away pretty early, it’s going to come back to haunt you. And today it really reared its ugly head."

Birmingham’s defense held bruising Gamblers running back Mark Thompson to 59 yards on 17 carries. Linebacker Quentin Poling led the Stallions defensively with 11 combined tackles, a sack and an interception. 

Bahar started the game 5-of-5 but finished 20-of-27 for 149 yards and no touchdown passes. Bahar was responsible for two turnovers and gave way to back up Montel Cozart at the end of the game. 

Two-minute drill sparks Birmingham rally

Trailing 9-3 late in the second quarter, the Stallions got the ball back with 57 seconds before the half.

That felt like an eternity for tight end Jace Sternberger, who finished with three receptions for 58 yards, including a 4-yard catch for a score that forced him toe-tap his feet at the edge of the end zone with 13 seconds left in the half. 

"I love doing two-minute with this offense," Sternberger said. "It’s something we take pride in. I don’t know the statistics, but I know as many attempts we’ve had in 2-minute, we’re very successful. We look forward to it as an offense, and as soon as we saw there were 56 seconds left, I was like that’s too much time for Alex, and we’re about to go set the tone for the second half."

On that drive, the Stallions marched 68 yards on five plays, capped by McGough’s touchdown throw. Holtz said his team practices going 30 yards in thirty seconds from the team’s own 40-yard line each week to get into scoring position.

"When they look up and see 57 seconds on the clock, there’s not even a rush," Holtz said. "And we’ve got two or three timeouts? We’re good, so nobody hits the panic button, and they just play."