By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
CANTON, Ohio — As Birmingham Stallions coach Skip Holtz was riding down the elevator, he was quietly taking in the words of his father Lou Holtz.
Lou underwent back surgery earlier this year, and that procedure kept him from traveling to Birmingham to see his son coach the Stallions. That changed on Saturday.
With the help of friends, Lou was at Tom Benson Pro Football Hall of Fame Stadium to see his son coach as a professional — and win.
"That was special," Skip Holtz said. "And it hasn’t happened very often because I was coaching when he was coaching obviously, but that was special for my father and my mentor, a man I have an incredible amount of respect for [to be here]."
In what wound up being an insurance touchdown, Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith rushed into the end zone to cement a 31-17 victory over the New Orleans Breakers to send Holtz’s squad to the inaugural United States Football League Championship Game next Sunday.
In the media room at Tom Benson approaching midnight local time, Smith was still overcome with emotion over the fact that he and the Stallions are staying to play for one more week.
"I’m just really happy for Coach Holtz," he said, holding back tears. "I owe him a championship."
Smith finished 17 of 27 for 190 passing yards with two total touchdowns as the Stallions played the brand of football that helped them begin the season 9-0 before suffering their first loss. They started slow but took care of the football, all while getting timely plays on defense and special teams.
The win reflected the workmanlike, steel-driving image the Stallions have created for themselves in Birmingham, Alabama, a city as renowned for its once-thriving railroad industry as the quality of football played there.
While Saturday's night's game ended with a 14-point margin, it didn't always look like the Stallions would pull away from Larry Fedora’s Breakers.
After Smith dropped the snap on the opening drive, kicker Brandon Aubrey was forced to attempt a long field goal. He missed it.
The Breakers took advantage of the break in serve and marched down the field with their trademark, up-tempo offense.
Breakers offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone kept quarterback Kyle Sloter making short, easy throws to start, with a mix of running back Jordan Ellis to keep John Chavis’ Birmingham defense off balance. That mixture led to New Orleans scoring first when Ellis walked into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Smith and the passing offense found a spark nearing the second quarter when New Orleans defensive coordinator John Tenuta opted to run man-coverage across the back end, and Smith beat it with a toss to former Mississippi State wideout Osirus Mitchell to help tie the score at 7-7 with 14:55 left in the half.
Out the Gate(s)
After Sloter made the decision to throw the ball as he was getting hit, linebacker DeMarquis "The Dentist" Gates waited for what felt like a full quarter for the ball to drop into his hands. He rolled backward end-over-end, stood up and hitched his wagon to a convoy being pulled by Stallions defenders as he galloped toward the end zone, finishing his pick-six just beside the Pro Football Hall of Fame — with his floss pick between his teeth.
Gates followed up being the first player at Ole Miss to notch 100 tackles in a season since Patrick Willis, to being their first All-USFL player as one of the best linebackers in the league.
Sloter, Cannella hang tough
Sloter would throw one other INT — giving him 13 in 11 weeks — but completed 22 of 40 for 327 passing yards and a TD, too. Not bad for a player Fedora didn’t even think was going to be able to physically play at all against the Stallions.
Sloter played most of the season with a strained groin that limited his mobility.
"For Kyle to even play this game, we really did not expect it," Fedora said. "We didn’t. So, he gave us a chance. He’s a tough, tough guy. He pulled it out. He was a warrior."
Breakers tight end Sal Cannella caught 12 passes for a single-game receiving record 154 yards and is believed to be one of a handful of players who will get an invitation to an NFL training camp later this summer.
The pick-six Sloter threw, however, and the heroics of Birmingham dynamo Victor Bolden proved too much for the Breakers to overcome.
Bolden ran it back
After the Breakers tied up the game at 14-14 on a dynamic fourth-and-4, Bolden showed why he was the first receiver selected in the inaugural USFL Draft, and why Holtz described him as a man who was "three first-round picks in one guy."
Bolden took the Breakers' kickoff back to the house for the first special teams TD of the game, and the third special teams TD of the day. It was also the longest returned kick of the day at a whopping 90 yards, putting the Stallions ahead 21-14.
"He deserves about 50 touches a game with the way he plays the game," Holtz said.
The score came so quickly that Sloter and the New Orleans offense had another opportunity to score with 47 seconds left in the half.
But after a promising start to the drive, in which Sloter connected with Anthony Jones for a 30-yard gain, he came out of a timeout and threw his second interception in as many quarters.
The Breakers channeled their inner Stallion in the third quarter when they absolutely milked a 17-play 74-yard drive that ate up 9:10 of the third quarter and came away with three points, closing the deficit to the regular season South Division champs to 21-17.
The Stallions answered with their own field goal to make their lead seven again with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game. Birmingham continued to eat clock in the fourth quarter, though, eventually chewing away any time the Breakers might have left to get two TDs, even if they had a chance to use the fourth-and-12 option in lieu of an onside kick if they scored.
"We called the game to get first downs," Holtz said.
Birmingham ate up 88 yards on 15 plays while using 7:45 of the fourth quarter to do it. By the time the New Orleans defense got off the field, the Breakers' offense had just 39 seconds left to play their last snaps in the shadow of the Hall of Fame.
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.