USFL Week 6: What to expect in all four matchups

Week 6 of the 2023 USFL season is here, with all eight teams back in action this weekend.

Kicking things off Saturday, the Pittsburgh Maulers are taking on the Memphis Showboats at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis. Later, the defending champion Birmingham Stallions travel to Detroit's Ford Field to face the Michigan Panthers.

On Sunday, the USFL returns to Detroit for a matchup between the one-loss New Orleans Breakers and the Philadelphia Stars, followed by a contest in Memphis between the New Jersey Generals and the Houston Gamblers.

Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s matchups, from FOX Sports' Carmen Vitali and RJ Young.

Pittsburgh Maulers (2-3) vs. Memphis Showboats (2-3)
Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on USA

The Showboats and the Maulers will represent the strength of the USFL when they meet up.

Two teams that once looked like the worst in the league have come alive in recent weeks.

The Maulers entered the season as the worst team based on last year's 1-9 record. The Showboats began 2023 on a three-game losing streak.

Now, in the second half of the season, the Showboats (2-3) and Maulers (2-3) are each in contention to earn one of the four spots in the USFL playoffs. While it took some time for the offenses to find their footing behind Showboats quarterback Cole Kelley and Maulers quarterback Troy Williams, these teams have been carried by defense.

Carnell Lake’s Memphis D showcased its ability to stop one of the league’s best scoring offenses — and a playoff team a year ago — in a 17-10 win against the New Orleans Breakers. As I wrote in my Week 5, USFL power rankings, the Breakers walked into their home hub stadium in Birmingham leading the USFL in total offense and tied for first in the USFL in scoring. Memphis' defense held the Breakers to just 10 points.

Safety Troy Warner led this outstanding display of defense with 12 tackles. Other players on that defense to watch this week are Big Kat Bryant and Greg Reaves

If the Showboats get another 200-yard passing performance without a turnover from their offense, they’ll present an impressive challenge to the Maulers, who have shown themselves capable of playing the kind of defense that could propel them into the playoffs.

Last week, the Maulers dispatched North Division rival Michigan, 23-7, doubling their season-long win total from one year ago.

That effort was helped by an offensive performance from quarterback Williams, who earned USFL Offensive Player of the Week honors after putting up 243 of the Maulers’ 299 total yards. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 184 yards, with 59 rush yards and three total TDs in their win.

The Maulers managed to score the most points they had all season in the win by capitalizing in the red zone. Prior to Week 5, the Maulers converted just one of 12 red zone attempts into a TD. Against the Panthers, though, Pittsburgh converted three of four red zone trips into TDs.

That trend will likely need to continue against a Showboats team that has allowed just 10 points in each of their wins this season.

The Maulers notched four takeaways in the win that has them in a three-way tie for first place in the North Division. Mauler defensive back Mark Gilbert accounted for an INT, two tackles and five passes defended in Pittsburgh’s victory last Saturday.

— By RJ Young

Birmingham Stallions (3-2) vs. Michigan Panthers (2-3)
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app

Week 6 of the USFL brings us an inter-division showdown between the Stallions and the Panthers. 

Last week, the Stallions dropped their contest against the Houston Gamblers, who have won three straight while Birmingham has lost two of its last three. They’ve slipped to third in FOX Sports’ USFL power rankings, but with the New Orleans Breakers losing their first game last weekend, the South remains wide open. 

[USFL Week 5 Power Rankings: Gamblers ride chaos to the top]

And if the South is wide open, the North is gridlocked … between all four teams. Each North squad is 2-3, so the Panthers could gain some serious ground by getting their first win at home.

Can the Stallions get back on the horse?

While both teams have shown flashes this season, the Stallions find themselves facing a crucial juncture as they look to get their offense back on track. All eyes will be on quarterback Alex McGough as he shoulders the responsibility of igniting the Stallions' scoring machine once again.

For Birmingham, offensive struggles have become an unfortunate theme in recent weeks. After a promising start to the season, the Stallions' production has sputtered. In their first three games, the Stallions averaged an impressive 28 points per contest, but over the past two weeks, their scoring output has dropped to a paltry 14 points per game. It's clear that a spark is desperately needed to reignite their offensive firepower.

This is where McGough comes into the picture. The former NFL signal-caller was expected to be the catalyst for the Stallions' success this season, showcasing his arm talent and ability to extend plays with his legs. McGough completed 24 of 37 passes for 209 yards and rushed for 76 with two TDs in last weekend's loss. If he keeps that up, the Stallions could be right back in the race for the South division.

Michigan still looking for its first win at Ford Field

The Panthers find themselves in a precarious position as they continue to search for their first win at home. With the Stallions coming to town, the Panthers are hoping to finally deliver victory in front of their hometown fans. However, an ongoing quarterback competition between Josh Love and Carson Strong adds an extra layer of intrigue to this crucial matchup.

Love and Strong have both had their moments, but inconsistency has plagued their performances. Head coach Mike Nolan finds himself in a delicate balancing act, trying to determine which quarterback gives the team the best chance to secure that elusive home victory.

Love started Week 5 before he was pulled toward the end of the first half. This had happened in multiple weeks before, with Strong coming in for a drive before Love resumed his post under center in the second half. Last week, that wasn’t the case. Strong came in towards the end of the first half and then stayed in for the second. The Panthers still ended up dropping the game 23-7 to the Pittsburgh Maulers, not scoring after their first possession of the game.

In addition to the quarterback situation, the Panthers' offense as a whole must find its rhythm. The ground game in particular needs a spark given that the Panthers are averaging just 98.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth in the league.

Will it be Love's experience or Strong's potential that lights the way for the Panthers? Only time will tell as Michigan goes after its first home win yet again.

— By Carmen Vitali

New Orleans Breakers (4-1) vs. Philadelphia Stars (2-3)
Sunday, Noon ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app

The Stars are riding high on the momentum of a thrilling victory last week, while the Breakers aim to bounce back after suffering their first loss of the season. 

The Stars are part of a four-way tie in the USFL’s North division (all at 2-3) while the Breakers have opened things up in the South. But they can keep their lead in the division and atop FOX Sports’ power rankings with a bounce-back win in Detroit.

[USFL Week 5 Power Rankings: Gamblers ride chaos to the top]

Can the Stars convert some field goals into touchdowns?

Last week, the Stars put on a remarkable performance behind all field goals. The hero of the game was none other than kicker Luis Aguilar, whose 55-yard walk-off field goal sealed the Stars’ first victory since Week 2.

Aguilar's exceptional performance saw him convert eight field goals, a USFL record. The Stars' offense, while struggling to find the end zone, was the beneficiary of Aguilar's precision and clutch kicks, including three from beyond 50 yards. Heading into Week 6, Philadelphia hopes to build upon its recent success and find a way to capitalize on its red zone opportunities to complement its field goal prowess. It's a must. The Stars were outgained by 189 yards last game, but New Jersey turned the ball over four times to give the Stars extra possessions. They shouldn’t count on that happening with New Orleans.

Will the Breakers bounce back after their first loss?

The New Orleans Breakers had a setback last week, losing their first game of the season. The game seemed like a bit more of an anomaly than any sort of changing trend, though. The Breakers uncharacteristically turned the ball over multiple times and couldn’t recover, losing to the Memphis Showboats by a 17-10 margin, giving the Showboats their second win in a row.

The Breakers still have the best record in the South at 4-1 and have been able to count on quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson all season. He leads all players in the USFL with 1,322 passing yards, and he’s complemented by the best skill players in the league, as well. Wide receiver Sage Surratt has the most receiving yards this season with 38, while running back Wes Hills has the most rushing yards of any player with 427. It means New Orleans has the USFL’s most potent offense and the Stars’ defense is going to have all it can handle with a well-balanced attack that’ll be a little angry after dropping its first game.

— By Carmen Vitali

New Jersey Generals (2-3) vs. Houston Gamblers (3-2)
Sunday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app

As the USFL worked toward returning to competition for the first time in more than three decades, USFL commissioner Daryl Johnston mentioned to me that he thought running back Mark Thompson could be a breakout player for the league.

Not a whole lot of people know more about football than "Moose" Johnston. So I followed his nudge and texted Thompson to ask if he would talk for a story.

Nearly an hour later, he replied: "Hey, RJ! I really appreciate the offer, this is huge. However, I’m really focused on being the best product of myself I can be when the lights cut on. When the season begins if you’re still interested feel free to reach out again. I’ll lock your number in now."

That was March 2, 2022.

In many respects, Thompson was the kind of player the USFL, as a spring league designed around the NFL’s regular season, was created to showcase. As a standout high school player in the Philadelphia area and a junior college All-American, he’d only flashed his athletic brilliance a handful of times at Florida where self-inflicted problems tarnished an otherwise budding talent.

He was enough of a talent to warrant signing in 2018 after two years at Florida and had been a part of teams and training camps for the Raiders, Ravens, Lions and Panthers.

As he was beginning to find his footing in the NFL, though, the impact of the pandemic halted his football career. As a former Super Bowl champion fullback for the Dallas Cowboys, Johnston was impressed by what he saw from Thompson on film as he helped locate, scout and sign more than 400 players in 2022.

Thompson was "a running back who kind of got lost in the shuffle a little bit with COVID," Johnston told me. And with a hamstring pull, when he did have some opportunities to go to a [NFL training] camp, he was one of the running backs that I looked at that just said, ‘OK, why is this guy not in the NFL?’"

There were also some off-field issues. Johnston and the USFL, though, recognize there are those that deserve second chances, chances to show maturity, good citizenship, community engagement, and to showcase their ability as football players.

In fact, 2022 USFL MVP KaVontae Turpin was such a player the USFL took a chance on. Seven months after the New Jersey Generals first signed Turpin, the Cowboys invited him to training camp. His ability as a punt and kick returner led the Cowboys to sign him to their 53-man roster. By the end of the 2022 season, he had been named a Pro Bowler and an NFL All-Pro by his peers.

Johnston called Turpin’s story "unbelievable."

"You know, that's what the hook is here in this league," Johnston said. "Giving these young men another opportunity. Sometimes it's a non-traditional path back to the NFL. Sometimes it's just changing the narrative that's out there about you. Sometimes it's just showcasing your skill set."

Thompson, now 28, was held back by injuries in 2022, though when he is healthy he is the USFL's closest comparison to Derrick Henry. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, it’s not uncommon to see Thompson running by defenders and over them — as one Birmingham Stallion experienced last week in the Gamblers’ 27-20 win at Protective Stadium.

Thompson is tied for the league lead in rushing TDs this season, having already notched eight. Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor rushed for nine TDs in all of 2022.

The Gamblers, who are riding a three-game winning streak, are 3-0 this season when Thompson plays, 0-2 when he does not.

Against the 2022 North Division champion Generals on Sunday at Simmons Liberty Bank Stadium (4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), Thompson figures to play an important role. But he’s taking the days as they come, grateful to play pro football, and looking to put together a complete season.

On May 16, 2023, I asked to talk to Thompson again.

"I feel like last year, there was a lot of hype going into the season," he said. "And those first few games, I was definitely doing what I needed to do to showcase my talent, but I didn't have a strong finish. And overall, the team didn't do well. And if the team doesn't do well, everyone's not gonna get looks. When we all play well, we’re all gonna get looked at. So I think I just need to keep playing the way I'm playing. I have to do the little things right."

He is. He’s playing with fury on the field, remaining focused, humble and team-oriented on it. In that way, he’s showing himself to be the man Johnston sought out personally.

"I reached out to him and spoke to him directly," Johnston told me. "This is somebody who's learned from his mistakes, knows that he's missed an opportunity and knows that the clock is running on him. I'm excited to see what Mark Thompson does with this opportunity because I think he's one of those guys that knows that there's not a lot of time left for him. And if he's going to have that opportunity to get to the NFL level, he's got to have a breakout season in the USFL. And when you watch him on film, he is fully capable of doing that."

The USFL isn’t just a spring football league. It’s the way back, and Thompson is walking it.

— By RJ Young

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.

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.