By RJ Young, Eric Williams and Michael Cohen
FOX Sports Writers
Week 3 of the 2023 USFL season is upon us, with all eight teams in action in three different cities this weekend.
Saturday's action features a pair of games at two sites. First, the New Orleans Breakers take on the defending champion Stallions in Birmingham in a battle of unbeatens. That game is followed by a contest between two teams seeking their first win of the season, as the Memphis Showboats face the Houston Gamblers in Memphis.
On Sunday, the USFL will debut Detroit as one of its four HUB cities for the first time, with the Pittsburgh Maulers facing the Philadelphia Stars, followed by the New Jersey Generals against the Michigan Panthers. Both games will be played at Ford Field, which is also home of the NFL's Detroit Lions.
This is a battle of two unbeaten teams, both of whom reached the playoffs last season, with the Stallions winning it all. But there is also a very unique and interesting story surrounding this game — the story of Breakers quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson and his partner, Chinaka Hodge.
Bethel-Thompson is 34 and the oldest player in the USFL. He also has quite a football pedigree, with two championships under his belt in the Canadian Football League. Hodge is a star in her own right, and is the lead writer on an upcoming Marvel show on Disney+ called "Ironheart."
Despite working on the show, Hodge is in Birmingham through the season to support her partner, saying: "I believe that the world deserves to see his talent and not the other way around. I believe that the world deserves a quarterback like him, who is conscious about the men who play with him, who talks about race, class and gender in locker rooms and mentors young Black, brown and white men on and off the field."
And Bethel-Thompson expressed immense gratitude for the support from Hodge, a rising star in her field.
For more on this fascinating story by RJ Young, click here.
Two teams still looking for their first USFL win this season face off when the Houston Gamblers (0-2) take on the Memphis Showboats (0-2) on Saturday (7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.
Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson remains in search of his first victory with his new team, while Showboats head coach Todd Haley is working to earn his first win in his team’s new city of Memphis.
"We just got to get back to work," Haley said after his team’s 42-2, humbling road loss to the Birmingham Stallions in Week 2. "As I told the coaches, we’ve got to figure out what we need to do in all three phases to give ourselves the best chance to win because obviously, that result is not acceptable in any way, shape or form.
"When you take an ass kicking like that, you’ve got to go take a long shower and move forward because they’re not canceling the season, and we’ve got to figure out a way to put ourselves in a position to win another game.
That said, here’s one big question for the Gamblers and Showboats to address heading into this weekend’s matchup:
Houston Gamblers: Can the offense take better care of the football?
It’s hard to win games when you have needless penalties and are not careful with the football. Through two games Houston has a league-high seven turnovers and a league-worst minus-6 turnover differential.
The Gamblers also have 12 accepted penalties for 106 yards, tied for third in the league.
Quarterback Kenji Bajar has been the main culprit for Houston, with five interceptions and a lost fumble in his first two games. Houston is averaging a respectable 22 points a game but giving up nearly 34 points a contest defensively.
"I thought last week (Week 1) we ran the ball well, but turnovers really killed us," Johnson said. "This week, we just stubbed our toe. When it’s first and long, you get penalties that back you up and it’s just hard to overcome some of those things."
Johnson said the Gamblers have put the loss behind them and are focused on preparing for the Showboats.
"We’ve just got to get back home and put this one to bed," Johnson said. "We’re going to watch the film and go over some of the mistakes we made. After that, we’re going to put together a good game plan. I think Memphis has a heck of a team."
Memphis Showboats: Defense must show improvement
Haley should have no problem getting his team’s attention after losing by 40 points on the road to the defending USFL champs from Birmingham.
However, for Memphis to turn things around, the Showboats need to get more consistent production from the defense. The Showboats are giving up a league-high 34.5 points per contest and allowing a USFL-high 239 passing yards a game.
Memphis is tied for the league lead with eight sacks. However, the Showboats have not forced a turnover in two games.
"I think we’ve got to look inward," Haley said about his team. "How we respond to this type of adversity will tell us a lot about the men in that locker room. How we react and respond is going to be a critical thing for us. It’s less about opponents and more about what we need to do to play better."
— By Eric Williams
The Pittsburgh Maulers are seeking their first victory over the season while the Philadelphia Stars are trying to recover from a difficult loss as the teams meet up this weekend in Week 3 USFL action at Detroit's Ford Field.
Here’s a breakdown of Sunday’s matchup (12 p.m. ET on NBC).
Pittsburgh overview: A difficult introductory season in 2022 saw the Maulers finish 1-9 overall with five consecutive losses to end the year, after which head coach Kirby Wilson was replaced by Ray Horton, a longtime NFL assistant whose résumé includes defensive coordinator stints for the Arizona Cardinals (2011-12), Cleveland Browns (2013, 2016) and Tennessee Titans (2014-15). Horton last worked as the defensive backs coach for the Washington Redskins in 2019.
Thus far, Horton has struggled to turn the tide in Pittsburgh. The Maulers dropped their first two games of the 2023 campaign by 24 combined points and have yet to reach the end zone on offense. Their touchdowns this season have come on defense and special teams.
Philadelphia overview: Head coach Bart Andrus returns for a second season after guiding the Stars to a second-place finish in the North Division and a trip to the USFL championship game against the Birmingham Stallions. Andrus, who also served as the team’s general manager in 2022, is no stranger to alternative football leagues. The 65-year-old has coached in the World League of American Football, the Canadian Football League, the United Football League and The Spring League, among others.
The Stars opened the season with an impressive 27-23 win over the Memphis Showboats before falling to the Michigan Panthers last week. They enter the weekend third in the North division behind the Panthers and the New Jersey Generals.
Maulers player to watch: Inside linebacker Reuben Foster leads the Maulers with 12 solo tackles and ranks second on the team with 16 total tackles. Foster’s name may sound familiar to NFL fans who remember him as a first-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. He was the No. 31 overall selection whose two-year run in San Francisco was derailed by off-field issues that led to his eventual release. A serious knee injury in 2019 compromised Foster’s subsequent stint with Washington and prevented him from ever taking the field.
Stars player to watch: Cornerback Amani Dennis leads the USFL with two interceptions through the first two games of the season. His path toward prominence in Philadelphia has been rather circuitous, beginning with a collegiate career at Division III Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He left Carthage with 100 career tackles and 11 interceptions while playing nickel back for three seasons from 2016-18. An invite to minicamp with the Cleveland Browns never produced a contract, and Dennis spent two years in The Spring League before joining the Stars in 2022.
Stats to know: There is a significant discrepancy between the aerial prowess of each team ahead of Sunday’s game.
The Maulers rank last in the USFL in passing offense at 82.5 yards per game. Starting quarterback James Morgan from Florida International and backup Troy Williams from Utah have combined to complete just 29 of 57 passes (50.1%) with zero touchdowns and one interception. No other team in the league averages fewer than 150 passing yards per game.
The Stars land at the other end of the spectrum due in large part to steady quarterback play from 27-year-old Case Cookus, a former cult favorite during his brief run with the Minnesota Vikings in 2021. Cookus has additional NFL experience with the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Rams, though he’s never appeared in a regular season game. This season, Cookus ranks second in the USFL in passing with 495 yards and three touchdowns in his first two games.
— By Michael Cohen
Last season, the New Jersey Generals were the kings of the North Division in the USFL, cruising to a 9-1 regular season record and a berth in the playoffs. This season, the Michigan Panthers appear ready to challenge for the crown, as they are off to a 2-0 start.
Now, the Panthers will be a home team for the first time, hosting the Generals at Detroit's Ford Field on Sunday.
Here’s a breakdown of Sunday’s matchup (4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
New Jersey overview: Though the Generals were upset by the Stars in last year’s Division Finals, there’s no question they were one of the best teams in the league, tying Birmingham for the most regular season wins with nine. Head coach Mike Riley, whose previous head coaching experience includes runs with Oregon State (1997-98, 2003-14), the San Diego Chargers (1999-2001) and Nebraska (2015-17), is back for a second year after doubling as the team’s general manager in 2022.
Riley and the Generals roll into Week 3 on the heels of an impressive 20-3 win over the Maulers in which they limited Pittsburgh to just 166 yards of total offense and forced three turnovers (two fumbles, one interception).
Michigan overview: After a 2-8 campaign in 2022, the Panthers replaced head coach Jeff Fisher with Mike Nolan, another NFL mainstay who served as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08 and worked most recently as the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020. This is Nolan’s first foray outside the NFL since he was the linebackers coach at Louisiana State from 1985-86.
The Panthers enter the weekend as one of three undefeated teams alongside the Stallions (2-0) and New Orleans Breakers (2-0). They’ve won their first two games by 30 combined points — 29-13 over the Houston Gamblers; 24-10 over the Philadephia Stars — and lead the league in turnover margin at plus-five.
Generals player to watch: Tailback Darius Victor is tied with Michigan’s Reggie Corbin for the league lead in rushing yards with 160 through the first two games. Victor posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Towson in 2014 and 2015 with 29 rushing touchdowns during that span. His résumé includes brief NFL stints with the New Orleans Saints (2017) and Arizona Cardinals (2017-18) but never reached the active roster in either location. He was named the USFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2022 after rushing for 578 yards and a league-best nine touchdowns.
Panthers player to watch: It would be easy to choose Corbin here, especially after he ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in last week’s win over the Stars. But defensive end Breeland Speaks is off to a flying start with four sacks in his first two games. No other player has more than two sacks this season. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound Speaks was a second-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018 but only spent two years with the organization, his tenure impeded by a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. From that point forward, Speaks spent time with the Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Buffalo Bills but never appeared in a regular season game.
Stats to know: Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Brown and Generals defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell are overseeing two of the most aggressive, ball-hawking units in the league this season.
The Panthers lead the USFL in turnover margin at plus-five thanks to a league-best eight takeaways in two games: four interceptions by four different players to go along with four fumbles recovered. Safety Corrion Ballard from Utah has two forced fumbles.
The Generals, meanwhile, are fourth in the league in turnover margin at plus-one but are tied for second in takeaways with four: two interceptions and two fumbles recovered. Linebacker Frank Ginda of San Jose State ranks third in the league in tackles with 17 and intercepted a pass last week.
— By Michael Cohen
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.