DETROIT — It was a game measured through the uprights for the Philadelphia Stars, whose kicker, Luis Aguilar, kicked eight field goals, accounting for all of the Stars’ 24 total points on Sunday — including the 55-yard game-winner — and setting a new USFL single-game record in the process.
Aguilar’s longest kick of the game came in the second quarter, when he booted a field goal from 56 yards out to recapture the lead for his team. Aguilar was met with raucous cheers from the Philadelphia sideline following the kick. He kicked another 51-yarder late in the third quarter to put the Stars up 18-10 and then hit again from more than 50 yards to get the Stars back in the win column.
Not only that, but it wasn’t Aguilar’s usual routine.
"[Wide receiver/holder Devin Gray] was new this week and I trusted him," said Aguilar. Gray had only worked with Aguilar a couple times this week in practice, per the team. But it wasn’t at all the norm.
"He did a really good job and the guys up front blocked well for me," said Aguilar. "I love those guys to death and I know they got my back. It's easy to go out there and just kick and be free when you got a group of guys like the ones in the locker room supporting you, no matter if you make it or miss it. Just trust the snap, hold, kick and just treat it all the same."
Yes, even the 55-yard game winner, according to Aguilar.
The Generals had just tied the game on a hard-found quarterback sneak across the goal line. They took advantage of the unique USFL scoring rules, attempting a two-point play after the touchdown instead of the standard point after. Quarterback Kyle Lauletta hit tight end Woody Brandom and with 21 seconds left in the game it was up to Case Cookus and the offense to get Aguilar in range or go into overtime.
Long story short, they did and Aguilar kicked through the 55-yard attempt just like he had seven others on the day.
"I will tell you this," he smiled. "My quads were cramping. But this is a kicker’s dream."
All those field goals were indicative of a stellar defensive performance by the Stars, who continually gave the offense bonus possessions through takeaways. One of the more thrilling turnovers forced by Philly came halfway through the third quarter just as New Jersey was getting ready to answer the Stars’ last field goal. Down 15-10, Johnson drove his team down the field and was just outside the red zone when his pass bounced off the New Jersey receiver and into the hands of Stars cornerback Mazzi Wilkins.
Cornerback Amani Dennis also recovered a fumble near the goal line that was initially forced by defensive tackle Jordan Scott. It prevented another promising drive by New Jersey from turning into points in the fourth quarter.
"I think what was special about the defense this week, you could just feel it on the sideline, they brought the energy the whole game," said quarterback Case Cookus after the game. "And I think that's something that we're kind of lacking those first few and you can see they're flying around making plays. Yes, they gave up a few here and there, big plays, but they rallied around each other and supported each other and they just kept that high energy positivity, hard hitting coming through. It was awesome to see them play a game and, as an offense, we look at that and we want to play better for them."
It was the Stars who started off with the ball on Sunday at Ford Field and wide receiver Terry Wright got things off to a hot start by taking the opening kickoff past midfield to the New Jersey 49.
From there, Cookus and running back Matthew Colburn took turns moving the chains on a well-balanced drive that got the Stars as close as the New Jersey 1-yard line. But the Generals don’t have the No. 1 scoring defense for no reason. They were able to stuff the Stars at the goal line, with linebacker Chris Orr, who led the USFL in tackles coming into Week 5, forcing Colburn back three yards on third down at the 1-yard line. It forced Philadelphia to settle for their first field goal of the game, making it 3-0 with 5:41 left in the first quarter.
There’s something about dual-threat quarterbacks in the USFL, though. A day after Troy Williams led the Pittsburgh Maulers almost single-handedly to victory, New Jersey Generals quarterback De’Andre Johnson provided a spark for the Generals’ lacking offense, scoring the first touchdown of the game.
The Generals' rushing attack finally came alive with Johnson running it in on the aforementioned score from 35 yards out in the second quarter. He was left wide open with space to run, his offensive linemen well into the second level and clearing the way for him. Just like that, New Jersey took a 7-6 lead with 12:59 left in the first half.
The Stars took a hit when what was initially called a fantastic toe-drag touchdown by wide receiver Corey Coleman was reversed after review with Mike Pereira confirming on the replay that Coleman never got the second foot down. It would have been a 21-yard touchdown pass, but instead, the Stars kicked yet another field goal — their fourth of the game, which Aguilar again booted through to give Philadelphia a 12-10 lead right before the half.
Though the Generals dropped their second straight, it wasn’t on account of their stifling defense. The Generals' defense lived up to their reputation as one of the stingiest in the league, not allowing the Stars into the end zone once throughout the course of the game. The Stars went 0-for-4 inside the red zone. The Generals also sacked Cookus four times on the day. They allowed just 166 yards of total offense from Philadelphia. It was a combination of good field position, thanks to multiple good returns for the Stars by Wright, and a kicker with quite the range that eventually did the Generals in.
Winning didn’t come without a price for the Stars though, who lost multiple players throughout the course of the game to injury. Left guard Colby Ragland went down in the second quarter, wide receiver Jordan Suell, the team’s leading receiver until his injury, suffered a scary hit in the third quarter and was ruled out. Cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Stanford Samuels both suffered injuries as well.
After the game, Stars head coach Bart Andrus revealed they were one injury on the offensive line away from not having anyone else to send in. Due to the way USFL rosters are constructed, they aren’t able to carry as many offensive linemen as they often need.
The Stars are now 2-3 on the season and in a three-way tie for second in the North Division with the Pittsburgh Maulers and Michigan Panthers.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.