Birmingham Stallions edge Philadelphia to win USFL Championship
CANTON, Ohio – The Birmingham Stallions rallied in the fourth quarter to clinch a 33-30 victory in the USFL Championship Game over the Philadelphia Stars Sunday night at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
After falling behind for the first time in Sunday’s game with 11:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, Birmingham backup quarterback Alex McGough shook off an interception on the first drive following Philadelphia’s go-ahead score to put Birmingham in the lead for good with 3:16 remaining. McGough capped off an eight-play, 64-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to USFL Championship Game MVP Victor Bolden, Jr. in the back-left corner of the end zone.
A pair of interceptions, highlighted by a pick-6 from linebacker Scooby Wright, helped the Stallions seal the championship victory. McGough’s kneel down with 16 seconds remaining punctuated an 11-1 season and championship triumph for Birmingham.
“Everybody has a story on how they got here,” said Birmingham Stallions head coach Skip Holtz. “Seeing the smiles on everybody’s faces is unbelievable, and it’s about all of them.
“I’m blessed by the opportunity to coach these young men.”
Birmingham quarterbacks J’Mar Smith and McGough combined for 208 yards passing and two passing touchdowns. Starting running back Bo Scarbrough rushed for a game-high 135 yards on just 13 carries, averaging 10.4 yards per carry with a touchdown. Wide receiver Marlon Williams paced Birmingham with seven catches and 105 yards receiving, while Bolden, Jr. recorded 156 all-purpose yards.
Christian McFarland, who sealed the game with an interception with less than 30 seconds remaining, led the Stallions with seven tackles. All-USFL Defensive Team honoree DeMarquis Gates also logged seven tackles, recording a half sack and two pass breakups in the championship victory.
Philadelphia quarterback Case Cookus paced the Stars’ offense with 222 yards passing and three passing touchdowns. Cookus connected with wide receiver Jordan Suell for two touchdowns, while running back Dexter Williams led Philadelphia with four receptions for 73 yards.
Philadelphia (7-5) won the toss and elected to receive, but Birmingham’s defense grabbed early momentum with a quick three-and-out to open the game. Scarbrough and fullback Bobby Holly each recorded first downs on Birmingham’s first two plays on offense when Scarbrough reversed field for a 12-yard gain before Holly helped the Stallions enter Philadelphia territory with an acrobatic catch for 25 yards.
The Stallions capped off the eight-play, 55-yard drive with a 42-yard field goal from All-USFL Special Teams place kicker Brandon Aubrey, giving Birmingham a 3-0 lead with 8:39 remaining in the opening quarter.
Philadelphia responded with a score on the following possession when kicker Luis Aguilar converted a 32-yard field goal to tie the game at 3-3 with 3:49 left in the first quarter. Aguilar’s field goal capped off an eight-play, 52-yard drive that featured three first downs, highlighted by wide receiver Chris Rowland’s 18-yard catch to advance into Stallions’ territory.
Birmingham needed just four plays to score the championship game’s first touchdown, churning only 2:17 off the clock after Scarbrough burst through a hole on the right side of the offensive line and accelerated to the end zone. Scarbrough’s 36-yard rushing touchdown gave the Stallions a 10-3 lead with 1:24 remaining in the first quarter. The USFL champions opened the drive inside Stars’ territory after a 43-yard kickoff return by Bolden, Jr.
Despite going scoreless on its next possession, Philadelphia pinned Birmingham deep in its own territory when Kahlil Lewis downed Aguilar’s 38-yard punt at the Stallions’ 1-yard line. The Stars then forced a three-and-out on defense, gaining plus field position after Maurice Alexander returned Colby Wadman’s punt eight yards to the Birmingham 44-yard line.
Faced with a third-and-16 at midfield, Cookus found Suell streaking across the field on a crossing route for a key third-down conversion. Following an incompletion, Cookus hit Suell again when the Stars’ quarterback found the standout wide receiver in the right corner of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown. Aguilar’s extra point attempt, however, struck the right upright, which helped Birmingham maintain a 10-9 lead with 8:07 remaining in the opening half.
Birmingham quickly stretched its lead out to eight points on just two offensive plays when Smith connected with Bolden, Jr. and Williams on back-to-back pass plays to complete a two-play, 60-yard scoring drive. Smith’s 19-yard completion to Bolden, Jr. pushed the Stallions into Philadelphia territory before his 41-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to Williams made it 17-9 Birmingham with 7:13 left in the second quarter.
Gates and defensive lineman Johnny Newsome helped Birmingham halt Philadelphia’s ensuing offensive possession when the pair of Stallions combined to sack Cookus for a 13-yard loss on third down. Cookus led the Stars all the way to the Birmingham 33-yard line before the sack forced Philadelphia to punt from the Stallions’ 46-yard line.
Scarbrough ripped off a 69-yard run on the Stallions’ second offensive play on the ensuing possession, helping Birmingham surge all the way to the Philadelphia 6-yard line. Philadelphia’s defense, however, kept the Stallions out of the end zone, holding Birmingham to a 28-yard field goal attempt. Aubrey’s 28-yard field goal made it 20-9 Stallions as time expired in the first half.
After Birmingham went three-and-out to open the second half, Philadelphia capped off a lengthy 12-play, 94-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Cookus to Suell to trim its deficit to 20-15 with 5:17 remaining in the third quarter. The Stars converted three third downs on the drive, highlighted by Cookus’ scramble to find a wide-open Suell in the end zone for the score. Philadelphia’s ensuing two-point attempt came up just short when McFarland stuffed Williams back short of the goal line.
The Stallions burned the final 5:11 of the third quarter and the first 51 seconds of the fourth quarter behind a 12-play, 57-yard drive, but Birmingham went scoreless on the drive when Aubrey pushed his 38-yard field goal attempt wide right to keep the score at 20-15 with 14:51 remaining.
Philadelphia then marched down the field to take its first lead of the game, capping off a seven-play, 72-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cookus to wide receiver Devin Gray. The Stars never faced a third down on their scoring drive, reeling off gains of 11 yards, 14 yards and 12 yards to give Philadelphia the go-ahead score.
The Stars then stretched their lead to three points when Cookus found Suell in the middle of the end zone for the two-point conversion, making it 23-20 with 11:18 remaining in the fourth quarter.
McGough led the Stallions into Stars’ territory on the next possession, completing three straight passes before Philadelphia outside linebacker Jordan Moore picked off McGough’s pass at the Stars’ 35-yard line, returning the first turnover of Sunday’s championship game 12 yards to the 47-yard line.
Birmingham’s defense answered with a three-and-out, punctuating the defensive stand with a sack on third-and-8 to force a punt. Defensive end Dondrea Tillman sacked Cookus for the 8-yard loss before Aguilar’s 38-yard punt backed up the Stallions to their own 21-yard line.
Following a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Philadelphia, McGough led the Stallions on an eight-play, 64-yard drive to retake a 26-23 lead with 3:16 remaining. The Stallions’ backup quarterback went 4-for-4 through the air on the drive for 42 yards and a touchdown, finishing off the drive with an 8-yard strike to Bolden, Jr. Aubrey’s extra point, however, drifted wide left, keeping the game within three points.
Wright then helped put the Stallions up two scores on Philadelphia’s next play from scrimmage, picking off backup quarterback KJ Costello at his own 46-yard line before racing into the end zone for a pick-6. Aubrey then redeemed himself for his prior miss minutes earlier, putting the Stallions up 33-23 when his extra-point attempt sailed through the uprights with 2:53 remaining.
Philadelphia answered Wright’s defensive score, trimming its deficit to 33-30 with 1:43 left on the clock when Costello hit Rowland for a 12-yard touchdown. Costello fired four completions for 58 yards on the swift scoring drive before Aguilar drilled the extra point to make it a three-point contest.
The Stars then opted for the alternate kickoff, which is a fourth-and-12 from its own 33-yard line. Kostello’s pass intended for Rowland fell incomplete, giving Birmingham the ball back at Philadelphia’s 33-yard line.
Philadelphia received one last chance to tie the game or win it in regulation, forcing Birmingham to punt with 51 seconds left. McFarland sealed the game for the Stallions with an interception, falling down at the Birmingham 43-yard line before McGough kneeled it out for the championship victory.