Stallions overcome injuries to win season opener
Published 11:44 am Monday, April 17, 2023
The Birmingham Stallions (1-0) opened up year two of the USFL with a resounding 27-10 win over the New Jersey Generals (0-1) on April 15 at home.
The reigning USFL Champions picked up the win despite a rash of injuries plaguing Alabama’s only professional football team in the season opener. Birmingham’s returning leading receiver Marlon Williams – a Mobile native – tore his Achilles tendon early in the first quarter and the defense’s leader, Scooby Wright III, left early in the game after re-aggravating a lingering calf injury. Starting quarterback J’Mar Smith also suffered a hand injury in the first half, as well.
Despite those injuries to key players, Birmingham still came away with a convincing victory in week one. Birmingham linebacker Nate Holley forced a New Jersey fumble on the first drive of the game and it took the Stallions just one offensive play to take command. Smith heaved a near-perfect 61-yard touchdown pass to former UAB receiver Austin Watkins to put Birmingham up 7-0 early.
Neither offense was able to get on track for the remainder of the first quarter but the Generals opened the second period with a two-yard touchdown run from quarterback Dakota Prukop to tie the score 7-7 with 12:10 left in the half. Birmingham answered with a 23-yard field goal from All-USFL kicker Brandon Aubrey with 8:19 left in the half to retake the lead 10-7.
New Jersey marched right back down to the Birmingham 1-yard line, facing a second-and-goal, with 4:13 left in the half. The Stallion defense held strong on the next two General attempts, forcing a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. As quarterback DeAndre Johnson was dropped short of the goal by Christian McFarland, Birmingham took over on downs.
While the Stallion defense held strong, Smith threw an ill-advised pass two plays later that was intercepted by the Generals at the Stallion 10-yard line. Despite the great field possession, the Birmingham defense once again stood tall forcing a chip-shot field goal as New Jersey tied things up 10-10 with 1:55 left in the first half.
Birmingham then marched on an 8-play, 66-yard drive to once again go ahead just before halftime. After Smith’s hand was injured late in the drive, quarterback Alex McGough entered the game and heaved a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jace Sternberger with 10 seconds left. The pass was McGough’s first of the entire season. Birmingham took the 17-10 lead into halftime.
After another New Jersey fumble to open the second half, Birmingham stretched the lead to 24-10 when McGough rumbled for a 29-yard touchdown run with 9:51 left in the third quarter.
Birmingham extended the lead to 27-10 on another Aubrey field goal with 6:53 left in the game and would keep the Generals off the scoreboard for the final seven minutes of play to secure the win.
Birmingham outgained New Jersey 356 yards to 310 but the win wasn’t perfect for the reigning champs. Along with the injuries suffered in the win, Birmingham’s typically dominant running game could muster just 87 yards with much of that coming on McGough scrambles.
Smith completed 10-of-15 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while McGough completed 7-of-11 passes for 68 yards and a score. McGough also led the Stallions on the ground, rushing for 51 yards and a touchdown on six carries. CJ Marable rushed for 24 yards on nine carries, while former Alabama standout Bo Scarbrough carried the ball just twice for one yard and caught one pass for 5 yards.
Sternberger led Birmingham in receiving with five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, while Watkins had one catch for 61 yards and a score. A total of nine players caught at least one pass for the Stallions.
“I think Jace owes everything to his roommate (McGough) during (training) camp,” Birmingham coach Skip Holtz said. “He was meeting with him quite a bit. The biggest thing for Jace was trying to catch up mentally, because we’ve got this offense and everybody else had it for a year. He’s just now learning. I mean, he’s kind of got on the roller coaster halfway down the hill.
“We made the comment during camp that if you’re a new guy, you better get the playbook because we are teaching to the veterans, not to the rookies. Last year we started with two-plus-two-is-four. We started with division and multiplication this year.”
On the defensive end, Dondrea Tilman recorded five tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. Safety Christian McFarland also led all tacklers with 12 stops, while Nate Holley recorded six tackles and a fumble recovery.
Birmingham is back at home this weekend for the second of three straight home games to open the season as the Stallions welcome the Memphis Showboats on April 22 at 6 p.m. in a game that will air on FOX.