USFL Championship Game: Keys for Stallions, Stars

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After 10 weeks of regular-season action and two thrilling playoff games, the USFL Championship Game is finally here.

The Birmingham Stallions and Philadelphia Stars will meet in the USFL Championship Game on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) from Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.

Stars, Stallions to battle for USFL Championship

The inaugural USFL season is coming to a close as the Philadelphia Stars and Birmingham Stallions are set to play in the championship game. USFL executive vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston joins Marcellus Wiley and Emmanuel Acho to talk USFL.

“It’s been a heavy lift, a lot of work by a lot of great people up against a tight calendar,” USFL VP of Football Operations Daryl Johnston said on “Speak for Yourself.” “Really, really proud of everyone who played a huge role in this. … I’m really happy for Birmingham and Philadelphia coming into this game.”  

It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. And RJ Young used that accumulated knowledge to provide several keys to Sunday’s title game.

USFL Championship Game preview

RJ Young previews Sunday’s inaugural USFL Championship Game between the Birmingham Stallions and the Philadelphia Stars.

Turnover margin 

Both the Stars and Stallions were in the upper half of the league in turnover margin. Philadelphia was tops in the league at plus-8 on the strength of their ballhawks in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Channing Stribling led the league in interceptions with seven, and the team had 13 picks total. Philly also recovered nine fumbles, while giving up seven.

The Stallions were fourth in turnover margin at plus-1, thanks to seven fumble recoveries, compared to only four fumbles lost.

RJ’s take: “These teams are great at takeaways in different ways. Stribling has seven interceptions this year. He’s ready to go. You’re probably not going to want to throw near him all day if you’re J’Mar Smith.

“On the side, you also have Scooby Wright, DeMarquis Gates, JoJo Tillery, who can take the ball away from you by just knocking it out and scooping it up. You saw that with Gates against the New Orleans Breakers.”

DeMarquis Gates takes it to the house

Birmingham linebacker DeMarquis Gates takes the Kyle Sloter interception to the house for the Stallions touchdown.

Special teams

The Stars were one of the top return teams in the league, ranking second in punt return average (12.6) and first in kickoff return average (27.8). Stallions wideout/returner Maurice Alexander was the main catalyst, as he led the league in kick return average (31.5) and was third in punt return average (12.6). 

The Stallions weren’t too shabby either, ranking third in kick return average (24.3). Victor Bolden ranked seventh in kick return average (24.7) and fifth in punt return average (8.4).

RJ’s take: “I always thought the kicking game was gonna be the one that decides it. We had kickers who could make it from 61, we had kickers who missed chip shots. It just seemed to affect everybody.

“But if you’re going to punt the ball to Maurice Alexander, good luck. If you’re gonna punt the ball to Victor Bolden, good luck. Either one of those guys can take it back.”

Maurice Alexander, Victor Bolden shine

Marcellus Wiley and Emmanuel Acho share their top USFL semifinal plays, including special teams TD returns from Philadelphia Stars WR Maurice Alexander Jr. and Birmingham Stallions WR/KR Victor Bolden Jr.

Quarterback play

Neither starting quarterback began the season in possession of that role — Birmingham’s J’Mar Smith was behind Alex McGough, while Philadelphia’s Case Cookus backed up Bryan Scott. But both took over because of injury, and both took full advantage of the opportunity.

Smith ended up playing in nine games, starting seven. He ranked third in passing yards (1,573) and touchdowns (10), while throwing only six interceptions. His 118.9 passer rating was the third-best among QBs who had at least 200 pass attempts.

Cookus also played in nine games and started seven. He ranked fourth in passing yards (1,334) and second in touchdowns (12), with a mere five interceptions. His passer rating of 130.6 was the best in the league among those who had at least 200 attempts.

Stallions’ QB J’Mar Smith on historic USFL win

RJ Young sits down with Birmingham Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith to talk about what it’s like playing for the first time since 2019.

RJ’s take: “Smith was my pick to be MVP of this league because I don’t think that Birmingham is in this position if not for him. … J’Mar has found ways to just go get it, whether it’s with his legs or completing passes down the field, he finds a way to get in the end zone. He’s got some tools around him.

“I also think it’s going to be interesting to see if Case Cookus can deliver the ball to his playmakers. … If he can get the ball out to guys like Bug Howard, Jordan Suell, Alexander … they’ll have an opportunity to go and score points. And if you can outscore the Birmingham Stallions, you’ve got a good chance of beating them.”

Case Cookus on learning from Bart Andrus

RJ Young is joined by Philadelphia Stars QB Case Cookus, who describes how he got to this point, highlighted by his big performance against the Michigan Panthers. Cookus also shares what he’s learned from playing under coach Bart Andrus.


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