USFL Week 9: What to expect in all four matchups

The USFL's postseason is right around the corner, which means the final games of the regular season carry even more importance as we enter Week 9, especially when you consider that not a single playoff spot has yet been clinched.

That could change this week, as every game has postseason implications.

Starting off on Saturday on FOX, the Michigan Panthers and the Pittsburgh Maulers face off in Canton, while later in Memphis, the New Orleans Breakers and the Memphis Showboats meet up.

On Sunday, the Birmingham Stallions meet the Houston Gamblers in Memphis, followed by the Philadelphia Stars vs. New Jersey Generals closing things out on FOX in Canton.

[2023 USFL playoff picture through Week 8]

Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s matchups, from FOX Sports' Ralph Vacchiano and Eric Williams.

Michigan Panthers (3-5) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (2-6)
Saturday, Noon ET on FOX

It’s been a long, slow, painful slide for the Michigan Panthers over the last six weeks of the season. But they can put it all in their past with a win on Saturday afternoon, which would put them on the brink of a berth in the USFL playoffs.

The Panthers (3-5) will clinch the playoffs with a win over the Pittsburgh Maulers (2-6) on Saturday afternoon (Noon ET on FOX) AND a win by the Philadelphia Stars over the New Jersey Generals on Sunday night. A win would also keep Michigan alive for the division title and the No. 1 playoff seed in the North.

Getting to the playoffs at all would be quite a relief for Mike Nolan’s team considering they’ve lost five of their last six games after an impressive 2-0 start. That slide included a 23-7 loss to the Maulers in Week 5 in which they were dominated by Pittsburgh.

The Panthers gave up 23 unanswered points in that game after taking an early 7-0 lead. They had just 152 total yards of offense and turned the ball over four times. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh quarterback Troy Williams was a one-man wrecking machine, completing 15 of 19 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns, and running 10 times for 59 yards and a touchdown, too.

That game on May 13 in Detroit, though, was the last time the Maulers won. They’ve lost three straight since, moving them to the brink of elimination. With a win, though, they would at least stay alive until the final week.

The Maulers almost managed to push themselves off the edge last week, before they lost a heartbreaker to the Houston Gamblers, 20-19 in Canton. Not only did they blow a 13-0 lead in that game, but they lost a late chance to take the lead when former Washington Football Team kicker Chris Blewitt missed a 41-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining. 

Still, the Maulers likely won’t go out quietly. Ray Horton’s team may have the USFL’s worst offense — averaging just 242.9 yards per game — but they also have the league’s No. 1 defense. Backed by linebacker Kyahva Tezino, who leads the league with 80 tackles, and former NFL linebacker Reuben Foster, the Maulers are just giving up a league-low 260.4 yards per game.

The key for them will be whether they can get their offense going. They’ve scored one or zero touchdowns in six of their eight games this season and are averaging a league-worst 16.5 points. Williams may have thrown two touchdown passes in the last game against the Panthers, but he’s only thrown four in the entire season. He’s also been the Maulers’ leading rusher with 294 yards and three touchdowns.

The Michigan offense has only been marginally better, averaging 277.6 yards per game, good for sixth in the eight-team league. But quarterback Josh Love has shown signs of life. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in their 24-20 loss to New Orleans last weekend. His 1,323 passing yards on the season trails only Philadelphia’s Case Cookus (1,785) in the North.

— By Ralph Vacchiano

New Orleans Breakers (5-3) vs. Memphis Showboats (5-3)
Saturday, 3 p.m. ET on NBC

With both teams tied at 5-3, Saturday’s contest between the New Orleans Breakers and the host Memphis Showboats (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET) could go a long way toward determining which team makes the postseason in the stacked USFL South Division.

The Showboats won the earlier contest between the two teams, a 17-10 Week 5 victory in Birmingham. That started a league-high five-game winning streak for Memphis, while New Orleans has lost three of its last four.

The Breakers ended a three-game losing streak with a 24-20 victory over the Michigan Panthers last week, while the Showboats handled the New Jersey Generals in Week 8, 25-16.

"Our goals are still intact that we set at the start of the season," Breakers head coach John DeFilippo said. "And that’s all you can ask for in professional football, is to be in it. In the NFL when I was there, you wanted meaningful games in December. So, for us, it’s meaningful games in June." 

Here’s one thing to watch for each team with two games remaining in the regular season.

Breakers: Wes Hills looking for a breakout game

Through the first half of the season, Hills led the league in rushing and was one of the top candidates for offensive player of the year.

However, Hills and the Breakers have struggled to find any consistency in the running game over the second half of the season, and it has affected their ability to move the football.

Hills averaged 130 yards a contest and scored eight total touchdowns through the first four games of the season as the Breakers raced out to a 4-0 record. But during his team’s 1-3 stretch over the last four games, Hills has averaged just 57 yards a contest and has one total touchdown.

The Showboats held Hills to a season-low 38 yards in their Week 5 win over New Orleans. Memphis is holding opponents to 99 yards per game on the season, No. 5 in the USFL.

Hills still leads the league with 613 rushing yards, but he also has fumbled three times, with two of those recovered by the defense.

Showboats: Defense leading the way

Memphis defensive coordinator Carnell Lake has his group playing well when it matters most — at the end of the season.

During the Showboats' five-game winning streak, Memphis has held opponents to 11.2 points a contest. That's a huge improvement from the team's first three games of the season, an 0-3 start where they gave up 33 points a contest.

Memphis head coach Todd Haley says the difference was his team stayed together during some adversity at the start of the year.

"Starting 0-3, and the only people that like you are your mom, dad, girlfriend or wife — I mean nobody else is talking about you," joked Haley. "We chose to pull together as a group and to continue to fight and work hard. It just makes me happy as the head coach to be able to enjoy these moments and keep ourselves in position where we can continue to play games." 

— By Eric D. Williams

Birmingham Stallions (6-2) vs. Houston Gamblers (5-3)
Sunday, 2 p.m. ET on NBC

The defending champion Birmingham Stallions find themselves in a familiar position with two games left in the USFL regular season — sitting atop the South Division at 6-2.

The Stallions can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Houston Gamblers in Memphis on Sunday (2 p.m. ET) at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

At 5-3, the Gamblers remain in the playoff hunt, but they need a victory to keep up with the rest of the division, as one of either New Orleans or Memphis will be 6-3 after they play each other this weekend. Houston head coach Curtis Johnson has his team playing well down the backstretch of the schedule, with the Gamblers winning five of their last six games.

Here’s one thing to watch for each team heading into this weekend’s contest.

Stallions: Alex McGough has offense peaking at the right time

The Florida native has been the engine driving Birmingham’s offense and likely is the frontrunner for league MVP.

McGough leads the league in passing touchdowns (16) and completion percentage (68.1%) and is third in passing yards (1,614). He’s also been productive as a runner, totaling 337 yards on the ground with four scores.

But what has elevated Birmingham’s offense to another level has been McGough’s ability to get other playmakers involved. Running back C.J. Marable has become a bigger part of the offense, with 631 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.

Tight end Jace Sternberger has proven a lethal red zone threat, with 26 catches for 375 receiving yards and five scores. And McGough has developed a good rapport with receiver Davion Davis, who has totaled 27 receptions for 437 receiving yards and four touchdowns. 

The Stallions need all three of those pass-catchers and McGough clicking against a Houston defense that is holding teams to 19 points per contest over the last six games.

"I feel comfortable and confident in any single person running any single route," McGough said. "And that’s what you get when your practice the way we do, and how coach (Skip Holtz) pushes us to the details of each play. And I don’t think you would get that if you let something slide." 

Gamblers: Can Houston get Kenji Bahar and the passing game on track?

Running back Mark Thompson has been an unstoppable force as a runner for the Gamblers. He leads the USFL with 13 touchdowns since returning from an injury and making his season debut in Week 3. However, the Gamblers could use some big plays in the passing game to keep defenses from loading the box to stop their big bruising back.

Bahar finished with 11-of-20 for 146 passing yards and a touchdown in Houston’s close win over the Pittsburgh Maulers last week. For the season, he has completed 59.2% of his passes for 1,326 yards, with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. 

One thing working in Houston’s favor is the Gamblers are 4-2 in one-score games. So, execution down the stretch by Bahar, Thompson and other impact players has been more good than bad so far this season with a playoff berth still within reach.

"I preach this is just like the NFL," Johnson said. "Their games are going to come down to the last possession. It’s going to come down to the two-minute drill. We practice the two-minute drills a couple times a week. They do the same thing, working on situational football on defense. That’s how this league is. It’s a good football league.

"There are outstanding coaches (in our league). Look at our league, all the coaches have NFL experience. That’s why the game is played like the NFL." 

— By Eric D. Williams

Philadelphia Stars (4-4) vs. New Jersey Generals (2-6)
Sunday, 7 p.m. ET on FOX 

For much of the season, the North has been the division that nobody seems to want to win.

The Philadelphia Stars could change that on Sunday night.

The Stars (4-4) can clinch a spot in the USFL playoffs with a win over the New Jersey Generals (2-6) on Sunday night when the two teams meet at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio (7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). They could also clinch the division title and the top seed in the North if the Michigan Panthers also (3-5) lose to the Pittsburgh Maulers (2-6) on Saturday afternoon.

[USFL playoff scenarios]

It would be a well-earned title for the Stars — if it happens — as they’ve been the hottest team in the division over the last month. They crawled out of the basement after their 1-3 start to win three of their last four games and take over first place.

One of those wins came against the Generals in Week 5, on May 14. The Stars couldn’t move the ball much in that game, gaining just 166 total yards against the New Jersey defense. But the Philly defense forced four turnovers. And they won on the strength of a record-breaking eight field goals by kicker Luis Aguilar, including a 55-yard game-winner at the buzzer.

Moving the ball and scoring consistently has been a problem for the Stars, though, and it won’t be easy against the Generals. The Stars, led by quarterback Case Cookus, who has had short stints with five NFL teams, rank just fifth in the league with 280.1 yards per game — and dead last in rushing yards, averaging just 73.

The Generals, meanwhile, have the USFL’s stingiest defense, giving up just 19.1 points per game.

Technically, the Generals are still alive in the playoff chase, though their five-game losing streak has put them on the brink of elimination. They need to win both of their final games and get some help from the Stars and the Panthers to claim a berth.

Their losing streak has included a bit of hard luck. Three of the losses came by a field goal. They didn’t lose by more than a touchdown until last week when they fell 25-16 to the Memphis Showboats, and in a league that includes a three-point PAT option, even that was a one-score game.

That game may have actually given them a spark of life. Backup quarterback Dakota Prokup came off the bench to relieve Kyle Lauletta and was a one-man offensive show. The former Canadian Football League quarterback ran for a team-high 76 yards, completed 14 of 25 passes for 128 yards and threw for two second-half touchdowns.

If Prokup, who led the Generals out of a 16-3 hole and made it a game, gets the start on Sunday night, the Generals offense could suddenly be difficult to stop.

Of course, the Stars can be tough to stop, too, and they should be motivated — not only with a playoff spot on the line but also because of their heart-breaking, 27-24 loss in Birmingham to the league-leading Birmingham Stallions (6-2) last weekend. Cookus was excellent, completing 20 of 32 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns. Four of those passes went for 107 yards and a touchdown to Corey Coleman, a former first-round NFL draft pick who had his NFL career derailed by injuries.

They were just 2 ½ minutes away from their fourth straight win and a playoff berth when the Stallions marched down the field and scored a touchdown with 32 seconds remaining.

— By Ralph Vacchiano

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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.