Back-to-Back: Stallions capture second straight USFL Title

Published 9:19 am Monday, July 3, 2023

For the second consecutive year, the Birmingham Stallions are USFL Champions after defeating the Pittsburgh Maulers 28-12 in the USFL Championship in Canton, Ohio, on July 1.

Since the revival of the USFL in 2022, no team has been able to find the same type of success as Alabama’s only professional football team. The Stallions, under Head Coach Skip Holtz, are 21-3 with two Division Championships and two USFL Championships in the first two years of the rebirth of the USFL.

The Stallions of the original USFL were also successful, going 38-20 in three seasons – including a 27-9 record in the final two seasons – with two division crowns. The original Stallions, though, never made it past the semifinals in the playoffs.

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In this year’s league championship, the Maulers actually took an early lead, 3-0, after going on a 16-play drive that ate up more than nine minutes of game clock on the opening possession.

Birmingham finally got on the board when USFL MVP Alex McGough heaved a 42-yard touchdown pass to Davion Davis to put the champs up 7-3. Birmingham would never trail again.

While Pittsburgh answered with another field goal on its next possession, a 13-play drive, the Stallions responded right back with a 3-yard touchdown pass from McGough to Deon Cain with 37 seconds left in the half. Pittsburgh managed to drive down the field and connected on a third field goal as time expired to cut the Stallion lead to 14-9 at halftime.

The Stallion offense was roaring again as the second half began with McGough tossing a 20-yard touchdown to Cain with 10:35 left in the third quarter to extend the lead to 21-9.

After another Mauler field goal, Birmingham’s lead shrunk to 21-12. Then, an Alabama native made a play that could have seemingly changed the momentum of the game.

Late in the third quarter, former Alabama star Reuben Foster chased down a scrambling McGough and forced a fumble. Pittsburgh defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu scooped it up and raced down the field. As he was being tackled deep in Birmingham territory, Sapapolu handed the ball off to a teammate, who then raced into the end zone. There was only one problem, Sapapolu passed the ball off in front of himself, which is an illegal forward handoff, wiping out the score.

The Birmingham defense then held strong and Pittsburgh missed a 48-yard field goal as the fourth quarter began. After Birmingham faced its first three-and-out of the game on offense, the Maulers turned the ball over on downs on their next possession. The Stallions extended their lead when McGough hurled a 40-yard touchdown to Cain, who made a dazzling catch with Mauler defenders draped all over him, to give Birmingham a 28-12 lead.

Pittsburgh managed to drive into Birmingham territory on its next possession but Stallion safety JoJo Tillery sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Troy Williams, forcing a fumble. Birmingham defensive tackle Willie Yarbary covered up the fumble to secure the USFL Championship.

Even though Pittsburgh controlled the clock 33:51-26:09 in time of possession, and had four drives of 10 plays or more, the Stallions still outgained Pittsburgh 357 yards to 202 yards. Birmingham also rolled up 150 yards on the ground, most of which came in the second half.

“I love the way our players compete,” Holtz said after the game. “There’s going to be highs and lows, ups and downs, but even when we fumbled the defense was running on the field saying, ‘We got y’all, they’re not getting in.’

“They stuck together and have incredible togetherness. The way they play together, I just love it. I’m really proud of these guys; they earned it.”

McGough completed 18-of-25 passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns, while also rushing for 64 yards on nine carries. CJ Marable also rushed for 48 yards on eight carries and Ricky Person Jr. tallied 38 yards on six carries.

“I think it was just the chemistry we had, that we built all year,” McGough said of the team’s success. “It just goes to show what you can do with a group effort. A group effort goes a lot farther than an individual ever will.”

Cain caught four passes for 70 yards and a USFL Championship record three touchdowns as he captured MVP honors for the game. Jace Sternberger also caught three passes for 65 yards and Davis hauled in three catches for 55 yards and one score.

“This is a moment, a dream come true,” Cain said of winning the Championship MVP. “I couldn’t do it without the Stallions fans and my teammates. I honestly just want to be a team guy and do whatever I can to help the team.”

On defense, Tillery netted 10 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble, while Lorenzo Burns earned seven tackles and two tackles-for-loss.

While the Stallions had the best record in the regular season, Birmingham really turned it on in the playoffs, outscoring its opponents 76-34 in the two postseason matchups. McGough was considered the best player in the league all season but also put together a postseason run that could be considered the best in USFL history, including the original USFL.

McGough completed 39-of-56 pass attempts for 553 yards and eight touchdowns without a single interception in the playoffs. He also rushed for 148 yards and one touchdown in the two contests.

“I think he’s as good as I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around a lot of NFL quarterbacks,” Holtz said of McGough. “Alex McGough is special. I make a lot of bad calls and he makes me look smart because he’ll scramble around until he finds something.”

The Stallions held their USFL Championship parade in Birmingham, from Birmingham City Hall to Protective Stadium, on July 2. The USFL has already announced that the league will be returning for season three with season tickets going on sale. The USFL was expected to move all of its teams into their home markets in year three but is reportedly planning to stick with the hub model for at least another year with Birmingham continuing on as one of those hubs.