By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Run it back.
That’s how the Birmingham Stallions started the game, and that’s what fans will be asking for after the highest-scoring game in the USFL since its return last April resulted in the Stallions' first loss of the season.
John DeFilippo’s Breakers threw down a marker against the defending USFL champs (2-1). The win puts the Breakers (3-0) on top of the South Division, and their stretch of three straight wins has pushed them into championship contender territory.
"That’s one of our goals for the season," DeFilippo said. "So we have a long way to go."
And they started at a deficit.
A wild start
Stallions return man and wideout Deon Cain took the opening kickoff to the house, and like Kid ‘n Play, threw a party at the end of his 82-yard dash.
New Orleans QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson responded by finding former Oklahoma wide receiver Lee Morris, splitting the safeties in the middle of the field for six — 40 yards for a TD. Bethel-Thompson would go on to finish 20-for-28 for 283 yards, with three TDs and one interception, as the Breakers put up 483 yards of offense against a Stallions defense that did not surrender a point in Week 2 vs. the Memphis Showboats.
But on their second drive, the Breakers fed running back Wes Hills with great results, becoming the first team this season to score more than 10 points against the Stallions — all inside the first quarter.
At the end of the first period, the score remained New Orleans 14, Birmingham 10, making it the highest-scoring first quarter of the USFL since its return last season.
McGough took a hit early in the second quarter that knocked him out of the game into the medical tent, which made way for former Prairie View A&M quarterback Jalen Morton, who ran for five yards before taking a sack that forced a punt and momentum change.
Former Breakers QB Kyle Sloter is inactive for the Stallions, but a new rule in the USFL would have allowed for him to enter the game as an emergency QB. However, if Sloter had been activated and played in any of the first three quarters, the first two QBs would not have been allowed to re-enter, so Holtz said he would’ve continued to play Morton if McGough could not have returned.
McGough did return, though, finishing 17-of-26 passing for 238 yards, with two passing TDs and a pick.
"Alex played a heck of a football game," Holtz said. "I think he's dialed in. I think ever since he took over the reins he has seen the field. He's thrown the ball extremely accurately. He made one mental mistake today when he threw the interception right there. But, other than that, I don't know that we can ask a whole lot more out of that guy in the play."
McGough returned early in the second quarter and showed he was good to go, rolling to his right and completing a strike to Davis for a first down. Just a couple of plays later, though, his pass was intercepted by linebacker Jerod Fernandez to give the Breakers the ball inside Birmingham's 25-yard line.
New Orleans turned that into three points on a 37-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin and a seven-point lead with 7:52 left in the half. This while the Stallions, the USFL's No. 1 scoring offense, had yet to find the end zone against Jon Tenuta’s Breakers defense.
With 4:59 left in the half, though, Stallions corner Lorenzo Burns came on a blitz to hit Bethel-Thompson just as he threw. The ball, floating like a wounded duck, fell into the hands of corner Donnie Lewis inside the Breakers’ 25-yard line. They were the first picks of the season for both McGough and Bethel-Thompson.
McGough then found wideout Austin Watkins for a 24-yard gain to the Breakers' 1-yard line. Running back CJ Marable punched into the end for the Stallions’ first offensive TD of the game and tied it at 17-17 with 3:39 left in the half.
Back-and-forth it went
But that was more than enough time for New Orleans and Birmingham to score.
Bethel-Thompson found former Alabama A&M wideout Dee Anderson for explosive plays of 42 and 19 yards in just more than two minutes to take back the lead, 24-17.
The Stallions respond with a length-of-the-field drive, with McGough finding the second-leading receiver in the USFL — former All-American tight end Jace Sternberger — for a 19-yard TD with 42 seconds left in the half, and it was 24-24.
With that grab, Sternberger has caught a TD in every game the Stallions have played this season.
DeFillippo dialed up the same first-half play that saw Bethel-Thompson hit Morris for six, and it worked again for six in the second half, this time to Jonathan Adams to put the Breakers back on top 31-24 in the third quarter.
With those 31 points scored, the Breakers became the first team to score more than 30 against the Stallions’ since the USFL's return last year. The Philadelphia Stars scored 30 on the Stallions in the USFL Championship Game in Canton, Ohio, last July.
Hills was a hammer
A large part of the Breakers’ ability to move the ball was Hills, who followed his 100-yard rushing effort in Week 2 with another in Week 3, going for 191 yards and three touchdowns — and he was loud about it.
"We’re in their hub," said Hills following the win. "We’re in their city. We beat them on their turf."
Hills has scored five TDs through the Breakers' last seven quarters, and his fifth stretched the Breakers’ lead to 38-24 by the time the fourth quarter began.
The Stallions went scoreless in the third quarter for the first time in the Holtz era. Down two scores, McGough found Davis once again for a big gain, who went over 100 yards receiving in the game.
A face mask penalty on the Breakers moved the ball inside the 10-yard line and set up McGough to find Davis for six. The quick strike brought the Birmingham crowd back into the game just as Bethel-Thompson and the Breaker offense came back on the field.
And as they had in the previous week, Bethel-Thompson and Hills took the Breakers down the field for six, making the game 45-31 with 4:56 left to play. There would be no answer from the Stallions offense, which gave up two sacks on the final series.
As the Stallions put the punt team on the field, Holtz was heard on the broadcast saying, "Well, boys, they want it worse than us."
That’s an attitude he’ll seek to correct after losing just his second game ever as a USFL coach.
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.