USFL Week 2: What to expect in four key matchups

By Greg Auman and Eric Williams
FOX Sports Writers

Week 2 of the 2023 USFL season is upon us, with all eight teams in action in two cities this weekend. 

Saturday's action features a pair of games in Birmingham, as first the New Orleans Breakers host the Houston Gamblers, followed by the defending champion Stallions welcoming in the Memphis Showboats. On Sunday, Canton, Ohio will become the venue, as the New Jersey Generals face the Pittsburgh Maulers, followed by a contest between the Michigan Panthers and the Philadelphia Stars.

Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s opening season matchups, from FOX Sports football writers Greg Auman and Eric Williams.

(12:30 p.m ET on USA)

The USFL had 13 quarterbacks attempt passes in its opening weekend, and nine of them are between 25 and 27 years old, but the outlier is 34-year-old McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who threw for a league-best 303 yards in his New Orleans Breakers debut after spending the last six years in the Canadian Football League.

"We struggled a little bit offensively early, and a veteran guy like himself has been there, done that, so it wasn't hard for him to get refocused and get our guys going in the second half," Breakers coach John DeFilippo said Thursday. "I think he was like 18-for-20 in the second half, something ridiculous. It was really, really good. A guy like him that's played a lot of football, there was zero panic in his voice, and it's great to have a guy like that."

Bethel-Thompson won a pair of Grey Cups and had two 4,000-yard passing seasons with the Toronto Argonauts, including a league-high 4,731 yards on the way to a title in 2022. He wanted more time with his family in returning to the United States and is hopeful a solid showing with the Breakers can get him another look in an NFL training camp this fall. He had nine stints with five NFL teams from 2011-16 but never got to play in a regular-season game. Last week's opener saw Bethel-Thompson throw the winning touchdown to running back Anthony Jones with 1:13 left, after leaping through the air to convert a key third down on the final drive.

New Orleans' opener was a strong one defensively, with 15 points allowed, including a punt-return touchdown, and DeFilippo said he wouldn't have taken the Breakers' job if he didn't have Jon Tenuta back as defensive coordinator. "I thought we'd have a really good defense, but I didn't know we'd have that good a defense," DeFilippo said. "I thought we played lights-out defensively."

On Saturday in Birmingham, the Breakers (1-0) will try to continue a solid start against the Houston Gamblers (0-1), who committed four turnovers in the second half of last week's opening loss to Michigan. The only player in the league with two rushing touchdowns is former Oklahoma and Utah running back T.J. Pledger, who had two scores in last week's loss. He rushed 14 times for 41 yards, which ranks him seventh in the league in rushing.

USeFuL notes ... 

The Breakers not only got a 5-for-5 showing on field goals from kicker Matt Coghlin in last week's opening win, but he stepped in and handled punts after Matt White injured his ankle early in the game, earning the league's Special Teams Player of the Week honors ... New Orleans not only gets its first two games in his home base in Birmingham, but will play there next week as a road team against the hometown Stallions. ... Houston's leading receiver in last week's opener was tight end Josh Pederson, 25, who is the son of Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson. Pederson, who had two catches for 23 yards, has spent time with the NFL's 49ers, Saints and Chiefs but has yet to play in a regular-season NFL game.

(7 p.m ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

The Birmingham Stallions needed two quarterbacks last year on the way to a USFL championship, and they'll now lean on Alex McGough after losing starter J'Mar Smith to a season-ending broken finger in the first half of last week's opening win.

Smith threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to receiver Austin Watkins on Birmingham's first play, but left the game in the second quarter. McGough came in and added touchdowns by passing and rushing in a 27-10 rout of the New Jersey Generals. Birmingham put Smith on injured reserve Thursday, and the new backup is Jalen Morton, 25, who played briefly with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats last year. (They also signed Kyle Sloter, who started nine games for the New Orleans Breakers last season. Sloter is on the inactive list).

McGough, 27, played at Florida International and was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round in 2018, with offseason stops with the Jaguars and Texans before joining the Stallions last year. Coach Skip Holtz took two other key injury losses in the opener, as top receiver Marlon Williams was lost to a torn Achilles tendon, and fullback Bobby Holly was also placed on injured reserve.

Memphis, making its USFL return last week, lost 27-23 to the Philadelphia Stars but made a solid debut, getting 182 yards and two touchdowns from former Memphis Tigers quarterback Brady White — his scores were 43 yards to receiver Rashard Davis and 29 yards to receiver Ryan McDaniel. Davis was a top receiver with the Tampa Bay Bandits last season, catching 22 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns before the team moved to Memphis. 

Birmingham went 9-1 last season on the way to a USFL title, but the Showboats and coach Todd Haley played them close in two meetings as the Bandits, losing 21-18 and 16-10 but holding the Stallions to two of their lowest scoring totals of the season. Memphis got two sacks each last week from defensive ends Greg Reaves and Jordan Williams

USeFuL notes ... 

Memphis has one of the USFL's most accomplished former NFL players in running back Alex Collins, who rushed for 1,997 yards and 18 touchdowns with the Seahawks and Ravens from 2016-21. He ranks second in the USFL in rushing after getting 63 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in last week's opener. ... Could there be a Randy Moss sighting in Birmingham? His son Thaddeus, a tight end who played at LSU and had looks in the NFL with Washington and Cincinnati, is on the Stallions' roster. He joined the team on April 11, with Jace Sternberger (five catches, 62 yards, TD) getting most of the spotlight at tight end last week. ... 

(1 p.m. ET on NBC)

Both winless after the opening slate of USFL games, the Pittsburgh Maulers (0-1) host the New Jersey Generals (0-1) in the first game of a doubleheader at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio this weekend, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Maulers head coach Ray Horton will look for his team to rebound from a disappointing, late-game loss on the road to the New Orleans Breakers, while the Generals seek to get their offense on track after scoring just 10 points against the defending USFL champs, the Birmingham Stallions.

Here’s a breakdown of Sunday’s matchup.

New Jersey Generals: Can Mike Riley get his team to take care of the football?

New Jersey did a good job of taking care of the football last season with a league-low eight turnovers. But Riley’s Generals fumbled twice last week at Birmingham, and the Stallions turned both of those giveaways into touchdowns.

The first occurred on New Jersey’s opening drive, when tight end Braeden Bowman was stripped by Birmingham safety Nate Holley. A play later, Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith found receiver Austin Watkins for a 61-yard pitch and catch for a score.

In the third quarter, New Jersey backup quarterback Dakota Prukop coughed up the football with his team trailing 17-10. The Stallions capitalized when Alex McGough scooted 29 yards for a Birmingham touchdown.

Making matters worse, New Jersey finished 1-of-4 in the red zone. 

Riley needs to figure out how his offense can execute better in situational football. For the Generals, that means being less reckless with the football and doing a better job of executing in situations like third down, where New Jersey finished just 4-of-12 for the game last week.

"I was real pleased in a lot of the things we did, both in the running and the passing and lots of parts of the defense," Riley said afterwards. "But we gave up big plays and we lost the situation game." 

Pittsburgh Maulers: Can QB James Morgan get a sputtering offense rolling? 

The Maulers totaled a league-low 156 total yards on offense in Pittsburgh’s season-opening loss to the Breakers.

Horton used both quarterbacks available in Morgan and Troy Williams, but the two combined to complete 10 of 27 passes for 72 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Maulers averaged 2.7 yards per pass play and finished 1-of-11 on first down. The only touchdown Pittsburgh managed was on an 84-yard punt return for a score by receiver Isiah Hennie.

While they struggled moving the ball through the air, the Maulers did manage 84 rushing yards, led by Duane Gary’s 34 yards on the ground. So, perhaps Horton can look to run the football to help create balance on offense.

"We want to start fast, and we want to be aggressive," Horton said after the game. "We don’t want to be a slow, four corners Dean Smith offense. That’s not what we’re about. We’re going to aggressive because that’s what the players are and that’s what I am." 

While they sputtered on offense, the Maulers played solid on defense, totaling four sacks and holding New Orleans to 1-of-5 in the red zone on offense. Linebacker Reuben Foster led the Maulers with 12 combined tackles and a forced fumble that led to Pittsburgh’s other touchdown. 

(7 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app)

Two of the top quarterbacks in the USFL after the first week’s slate of games face off when the Philadelphia Stars host the Michigan Panthers in the nightcap of a doubleheader held at Thomas Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Michigan signal caller Josh Love earned offensive the offensive player of the week for his effort in a win over the Houston Gamblers, completing 18 of 20 passes for 215 yards and three scores.

Stars quarterback Case Cookus was efficient in his first start as well, finishing 20-of-29 for 212 passing yards and three scores in a road win over the Memphis Showboats.

Here’s a breakdown of Sunday’s matchup.

Michigan Panthers: What will QB Love do for an encore?

Love completed his first seven passes of the game on his way to a USFL-record 90% completion percentage. The San Jose State product completed passes to eight different players and had five passing plays of 20 or more yards.

"We have some talented guys that have some juice," Love said. "A lot of guys in the slot are really capable of running option routes, making good decisions and getting open. We ran a lot of those. Guys got open, we just made quick decisions and hit ‘em."

The director of Michigan’s offense will receive another challenge in a Philadelphia defense led by last year’s USFL interception leader in cornerback Channing Stribling

The Michigan product got his first interception of the young season last week, as the Stars held the Memphis Showboats to 198 passing yards. 

The Panthers will have to be a little more buttoned up after making a few mistakes on offense and special teams last week.

"The nice thing about this game is we’re going to learn from it, because we made some mistakes, but we get to go home with a victory," Michigan head coach Mike Nolan said. "But what’s sour is when you lose, and you’re trying to learn from those all the time. You want to get a win under your belt.

"So, if you’re good enough to make some mistakes and still win, you feel pretty good about your football team." 

Philadelphia Stars: What’s the plan to contain Breeland Speaks?

One of the stars defensively last week for the Panthers was edge rusher Speaks.

A second-round selection by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2018 draft, the 27-year-old pass rusher finished with seven combined tackles and a league-leading three sacks in Michigan’s win over Houston.

Speaks bounced around to six different teams during his four years in the NFL but appears to have found a home with the Panthers.

The Stars will be tasked with figuring out a way to slow down Speaks. Philadelphia had trouble at times protecting Cookus last week, allowing five sacks by the Showboats.

"We have the ability to handle just about anything," Philadelphia head coach Bart Andrus. "And believe me, these guys will tell you that we work against pressures every day in practice, including the last one of the week. I feel good where we are at, in terms of the personnel that we have. We just have to do it better, that’s all." 

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