USFL Week 7: What to expect in all four matchups

With four weeks to go in the 2023 USFL season, things couldn't be much tighter, as first and last place in each division are separated by only one game.

That makes this weekend's games as important as ever, as it's a chance for each team to make a move and perhaps create a little bit of separation.

Week 7 kicks off Saturday with two games, starting with a contest in Birmingham between a pair of 4-2 teams — the Birmingham Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers — each looking to gain an edge in the South Division. That will be followed by a game between the Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

There are two more games on Sunday, as the Houston Gamblers and the Memphis Showboats battle at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis, followed by a game between the Michigan Panthers and the New Jersey Generals in Canton.

[2023 USFL playoff picture through Week 6]

Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s matchups, from FOX Sports' RJ Young, Eric D. Williams and Greg Auman.

Birmingham Stallions (4-2) vs. New Orleans Breakers (4-2)
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app

A month ago, the New Orleans Breakers and Birmingham Stallions were playing for supremacy not just in the South Division, but for the best record in the United States Football League.

But with four games left to play this season, the Stallions and Breakers might simply be playing for a place in the playoffs. That’s how tight the race is in the South.

Birmingham (4-2), New Orleans (4-2) and the Houston Gamblers (4-2) are each tied for first place in their division with the Memphis Showboats (3-3) just a game back. However, it’s the Breakers who look most vulnerable heading into their Week 7 showdown against the Stallions on Saturday.

After opening the season 4-0, John DeFilippo’s Breakers have lost their last two games. Those losses were away from their home hub in Birmingham, though, and they were two of the worst games they've seen from quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson through six weeks.

In fact, the losses on the Breakers’ record each coincide with the only instances where Bethel-Thompson has failed to pass for at least 250 yards.

On top of that, tailback Wes Hills, who had back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances in Weeks 2 and 3, has failed to rush for 100 yards in each of the Breakers’ last three games.

Getting back home might be just what the Breakers are looking for to regain their form.

That’s one reason to believe the Breakers can pull off the double and beat Skip Holtz’s Stallions for the second time this season. But don't expect it to be easy. The Stallions boast last week’s USFL Offensive Player of the Week in quarterback Alex McGough, who accounted for 133 pass yards and 82 rush yards in their win against Michigan in Detroit last week.

With each passing week, McGough has grown more confident, and Holtz has complimented how he’s grown into the role of starting quarterback, even asking for McGough’s input on play-calling during games.

McGough continues to get help from a receiving corps that is blossoming, with tight end Jace Sternberger and wideouts Davion Davis and Adrian Hardy becoming steady and dependable pass-catching threats just in time for the running game to kick into gear.

Last week, running back CJ Marable became the first Stallion to rush for 100 yards in a game this season, meaning the team’s leading rusher (McGough), has help toting the rock in short-yardage situations.

The Stallions' ability to run the ball against Michigan last week was aided by the defense returning to form with complementary football. After giving up at least 20 points three weeks in a row, the Stallions clamped down on the Panthers, surrendering just 13 points.

In their first loss of the season, the Stallions gave up a gaudy 45 points to the Breakers and allowed 483 yards of offense. John Chavis’ unit will walk into Protective Stadium with a point to prove and a division to retake control of come Saturday.

— By RJ Young

Philadelphia Stars (3-3) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (2-4)
Saturday, 9 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app

At 3-3, the Philadelphia Stars are tops in the USFL North division with four games left. However, the rest of the division remains in striking distance at 2-4, including the team the Stars face Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, the Pittsburgh Maulers.

Maulers head coach Ray Horton already surpassed his team’s win total from last season and is now working to do something Pittsburgh did not accomplish in 2022 — make the playoffs. 

Pittsburgh defeated the Stars 21-13 in Week 3, Pittsburgh’s first win of the season. Here’s one thing to watch for from each team in the rematch. 

Stars: Can the Philadelphia offense score TDs in the red zone?

The Stars have won two in a row but have not scored an offensive touchdown over the last two games. 

Philadelphia is 0-for-7 in the red zone over that time frame. While kicker Luis Aguilar has been impressive, making 11 of 12 field goals over the last two games, the Stars can’t keep relying on the kicker to finish drives. 

Philadelphia needs to figure out how to consistently put the ball in the painted area for touchdowns. 

"It comes down to mental mistakes, and it includes myself," Philadelphia quarterback Case Cookus said after Sunday's win over New Orleans. "I can’t make mistakes or turn the ball over like a couple times we did today. But I think it comes down to the little things. We have a lot of returning guys, and sometimes you have to remind them, ‘Hey, if you have a hitch, just run a hitch.’ Don’t worry about the other stuff."

The Stars lead the league with 45 accepted penalties for 367 yards. Philadelphia is also tied for second in the USFL with 10 giveaways and had three touchdowns called back because of penalties last week.

So, curbing self-inflicted mistakes will be key for the Stars against Pittsburgh.

Maulers: Can Maulers create consistency on offense with run game? 

Horton would like Pittsburgh’s offense to be dynamic and explosive, running up the scoreboard. But with the way the Maulers are playing on defense, Pittsburgh could benefit from a run-based, ball-control offense that plays keep away from the opposing team.

With that in mind, the Maulers need to find a runner that can keep the chains moving. Through six games, Pittsburgh’s leading rusher has been quarterback Troy Williams with 214 rushing yards. But someone from a stable of running backs that includes Madre London, Duane Gary and Garrett Groshek must take on an expanded role in the offense.

In Pittsburgh’s wins this season, the Maulers averaged 128.5 rushing yards. Even though he was pulled in favor of James Morgan last week to try to generate a spark on offense, Williams remains the team’s starting quarterback, Horton said. 

"We have to be a team," Horton said. "Are we the most dominant team in the league? No. Defensively, do I think we are? I do. But you have to have the special teams and the offense come along for the ride with you. 

"So, I’m very encouraged about the team we are building." 

— By Eric D. Williams

Houston Gamblers (4-2) vs. Memphis Showboats (3-3)
Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on USA

The last time the Houston Gamblers and Memphis Showboats faced off, neither had won a game as both were off to disappointing 0-2 starts to their 2023 seasons. Houston pulled out a close win, and since then, neither team has lost.

The Gamblers (4-2) have now won four in a row, and the Showboats (3-3) have bounced back nicely from an 0-3 start with three straight wins. Both teams are squarely in playoff contention with four weeks remaining in a strong South division. Only two teams will make the playoffs, and Sunday's loser will distance themselves from the winner of Saturday's game between the 4-2 New Orleans Breakers and 4-2 Birmingham Stallions.

That Week 3 battle between these two teams was one of the USFL's best games so far this season — Memphis trailed 23-10 in the fourth quarter, rallying to take the lead on two Cole Kelley touchdown passes, the latter with less than two minutes left. Houston answered with a 66-yard touchdown drive, and Kenji Bahar threw the game-winning touchdown to Justin Hall with 13 seconds left.

Houston won a game without Bahar, who was sidelined by an ankle injury, and then got him back last week in a 16-10 win over the New Jersey Generals. That win was sparked by the Gamblers defense, which took a shutout into the fourth quarter — Houston's leading tackler is linebacker Khalan Tolson, an Illinois grad who has 45 tackles through six games, and Reggie Walker and Ronheen Bingham share the team lead with four sacks each.

Where Memphis has its biggest advantage Sunday is in turnover margin — the Showboats are at a USFL-best plus-4 for the season, while Houston is second-worst in the league at minus-3. Memphis safety Troy Warner — the younger brother of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner — has 48 tackles, almost twice as many as his closest teammate, and the turnovers have come from all over, with the Showboats' 11 takeaways coming from 10 different players.

Memphis' leading receiver is Vinny Papale, whose father Vince played for the Eagles in the 1970s and was the main character in the Mark Wahlberg movie "Invincible." Papale has 21 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown. The Showboats won last week, however, with defense, shutting out the Maulers 22-0 and getting a 109-yard touchdown from Derrick Dillon on a missed field goal. Memphis has pulled off a 3-3 record despite enough injuries to their running backs that no Showboats player has rushed for 100 yards over the entire season.

Houston doesn't have that problem — running back Mark Thompson leads the USFL with nine rushing touchdowns and ranks third in the league with 374 rushing yards. The Gamblers have good offensive balance, with Hall leading the league with four touchdown receptions on the season, one ahead of teammate Anthony Ratliff-Williams.

— By Greg Auman

Michigan Panthers (2-4) vs. New Jersey Generals (2-4)
Sunday, 5:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app

All four teams in the USFL North division are within a game of each other with four games remaining, which should make for some entertaining contests the rest of the way.

And it creates some urgency for this weekend's game between the New Jersey Generals and the Michigan Panthers at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

This game is a rematch from Week 3, when the Generals defeated the Panthers, 28-13.

After starting the season 2-0, the Panthers have lost four in a row, while the Generals have lost three straight.

Here's one thing to watch for when these two teams match up.

Panthers: Why has Reggie Corbin disappeared from the offense?

One of the leading rushers in the USFL last season, Corbin has had trouble breaking loose over the past month.

In Week 2, Corbin was on the sidelines on TV asking Michigan's coaching staff to get him the ball more often. That led to his best performance of the season, a 131-yard rushing effort in a 24-10 over the Philadelphia Stars.

Since then, Corbin has totaled just 132 rushing yards on 39 attempts across four games. Corbin is still No. 6 in the USFL in rushing with 289 yards, and he leads the league in all-purpose yards with 820.

Stevie Scott III is second for the Panthers in rushing with 245 yards. But as a team, Michigan has managed just 96.3 yards per game, which ranks fifth in the USFL.

Because of their inability to consistently run the football, the Panthers have struggled to get much going on offense, averaging just 16 points a contest. Only the Pittsburgh Maulers are scoring fewer points per game (13.7 per contest).

"We've got to score more touchdowns obviously, instead of getting field goals," Panthers head coach Mike Nolan said after his team's latest loss last week, a 27-13 setback to the Birmingham Stallions. "When we get into that red area, we want to make sure we get points out of it, and we didn't do that all day today." 

Three of Michigan's final four games are within the North Division, so the Panthers still control their own destiny when it comes to reaching the postseason. 

Generals: Can Mike Riley find some playmakers?

New Jersey had the most dynamic player in the USFL last season in league MVP KaVontae Turpin. But through six games, Riley has struggled to find players to replicate that production.

Alonzo Moore leads the Generals with 17 receptions for 224 yards and two scores, while fellow receiver Cam Echols-Luper has 14 receptions for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Braedon Bowman has added 11 receptions for 162 yards.

Darius Victor leads the Generals in rushing with 377 yards and two touchdowns.

However, New Jersey has struggled with creating explosive plays and holding onto the football. The Generals are tied for fifth in the league in scoring, averaging just 17.7 PPG. New Jersey averaged 23.2 PPG last season.

Even worse, the Generals have 10 giveaways this season, including a league-leading eight fumbles. 

To try and jumpstart the offense, Riley made a change at starting quarterback last week, subbing out De'Andre Johnson in favor of Kyle Lauletta

Lauletta finished 17-of-30 for 177 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. But New Jersey managed just 10 points in a 16-10 loss to the Houston Gamblers.

The bottom line is that Riley's Generals need more guys to step up and make big plays on offense like Turpin did last season, whether it's Johnson or Lauletta at quarterback. 

"Our goal is to get into the playoffs," Riley said. "Whatever place that is, it doesn't really matter. You just want to get into the playoffs, but we have to get a win soon to do that."

— By Eric D. Williams

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.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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.