The Stars are now coming off back-to-back losses after a three game win streak that had them in the division lead. Despite this two game slide, the Stars STILL stand atop the USFL North Division. Normally I am not a big fan of memes but these seem appropriate:
After all the disdain for the XFL fans being forced to watch a sub .500 team pull off a Championship Victory in 2023, the hope was the USFL would manage to avoid this situation. The unfortunate reality is that it’s possible BOTH North teams enter the playoffs sub .500 this season in the USFL. Not only has this sparked discussion about the merit of divisions in leagues with only eight teams, but it has some questioning if it’s even worth watching these games if these scenarios continue.
In my personal opinion the fact that between the XFL and USFL, they have 16 teams, and that 13 of those teams’ playoff hopes were still alive into the final week of the season is a good thing. We always want to see parity, and we all say we hate blow outs. Yet here we are as fans complaining that teams were so close in their level of talent that no one shined through, as if it’s a bad thing. This is a classic case of fans never being happy, and ALWAYS having a reason to complain. I guess that’s the bright side of being a fan, and not a member of these leagues whose income is tied to whether they live or die. Now as I climb down off of my soapbox, I want to make it clear I am not at all happy with the Stars Performance, but I am also not upset that the league has just one team with a clinched playoff spot heading into week 10.
What Went Wrong?
Early in this game Drew Himmelman, one of the linemen credited with actually helping fix the protection woes for the Stars left the game due to an injury, and did not return. Before he even left the game we were having issues with allowing free rushers. On more than one occasion these free rushers came from the backside. I’m not sure who deserves the blame for how the line was sliding protection, but it seemed as if the most basic concept of offense, was ignored in this game. Your quarterback can not be successful from his back.
Normally when a free rusher is allowed, the thought is you want it to be on the front side of the quarterback in his drop back. He can account for a defender closing in if he can see him, but when these rushers are coming from behind, how is he supposed to react? Unfortunately some of this blame might be on Case himself. Only time will tell how this weekends game goes, but the Stars can not allow these mental mistakes against the Panthers.
The Stars have struggled to finish drives with touchdowns, in this game they had 6 attempts within the red-zone, and just two offensive touchdowns. Again Luis Aguilar was called upon to kick field goals on four different drives. On top of those four drives that ended in field goals, the Stars lost three fumbles on the day killing three more drives that did not end in points, and punted once on top of that. That means the Stars failed to find the end-zone 8 times.
This was the real game changing factor this weekend. The Stars continue to stall when it matters most, and they have often relied on amazing performances from Terry Wright, and Corey Coleman in the return game to get them immediately within field goal range. More on Coleman in a minute.
This simply isn’t sustainable, especially if the Stars continue to struggle containing opposing return men. The Generals watched Cam Echols-Luper win a special teams player of the week award following this game. He had 4 kick returns for 145 yards or 36.2 yards per return, added 1 punt return for 1 yard. Green also got involved and averaged 24 yards per return on 2 attempts. The team as a whole averaged 32.2 yards on kick returns as the Stars scramble to find solutions.
Corey Coleman, One Man, One Mission
Corey Coleman seemingly has taken the performance of the Stars personally over the past few weeks, and in week 9 Coleman took over. On 11 targets, Coleman caught 9 passes for 98 yards, and 1 touchdown, and had a 41 yard punt return on the day. On several occasions Coleman fought through tackles, and got extra yards after contact. He looked like he was playing angry, and if that’s the case I hope he continues to be angry. This was one of his best performances in my opinion.
One of the biggest questions about Coleman in the NFL has been his catch rate. In this game he caught nearly everything that came his way. The unspoken addition he brought to this offense on the day as well was drawing several pass interference calls when defenders were simply trying too hard to stop Coleman from catching a pass, even if it meant a costly penalty. While I don’t have an exact count, I saw at least two occasions where these penalties extended drives, and were crucial to the overall performance for the Stars.
Case Cookus is a Warrior
Case Cookus continues to take hits that would leave lesser quarterbacks refusing to get back up. Cookus on the other hand has won over fans, and teammates alike with his warrior like mentality. Cookus refuses to give in, he has missed just one passing attempt all season long, and that streak looked to be in danger of being broken in this game. He went down, and it looked as if he was in a lot of pain. Trainers came on the field and looked at him, but he would ultimately finish the game with no other quarterbacks taking a pass attempt.
Despite the loss, Cookus played extremely well completing 25 of 39 passes for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns with 0 interceptions, he added 7 carries for 59 yards. He did fumble twice, and lose one which is a concern, but the way he has been getting hit all season long, its amazing he hasn’t had more fumbles on the season. This past weekend, Cookus also topped last season’s passing yard record of 2,014 yards, and I would assume he adds to his 2,048 yard total this weekend. He also stands just 1 touchdown from topping the passing touchdown record from last season of 14.
As it stands Case Cookus has passed for 3,389 yards on 511 attempts, completing 324 passes or 63% for 25 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions with 68 carries for 462 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground. He has also been sacked 39 times in just 17 games in the USFL. The fact that he is managing to overcome this pressue in his face and continue to play very efficiently is nothing short of impressive. Give him an offensive line and the Stars might be 9-0 at this rate.
He realistically should have a job with the Stars as long as the USFL is a league after his performance over the last two seasons, but if he doesn’t get signed by another NFL team this off-season I would be surprised.
Emergence of Diondre Overton
The Stars lost Chris Rowland who began this season as one of the most involved playmakers on the team. Seeing time as the kick returner, a runner, and receiver he was a huge loss when it was announced he would miss the rest of the season due to injury. Losing Jordan Suell previously the WR2 to Corey Coleman was another huge blow. This and some other injuries at the position in individual games has led to an opportunity for Overton.
Diondre Overton is a guy who was very green when he left college. Playing for Clemson, he was primarily a back-up and role player, which resulted in him playing in 50 games during college, but collecting just 52 receptions for 777 yards and 7 touchdowns. Overton came out of college as something of an unknown. His best season had amounted to 22 receptions for 352 yards and 3 touchdowns on the year.
Those statistics no longer stand as his career highs. He has gotten more involved this year, and at this point headed into week 10 Overton has 29 receptions for 304 yards and 1 touchdown. Last season he caught just 12 passes for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns. I am surprised Overton hasn’t been utilized more in the red-zone at 6’5 210 pounds. He also had a 32.5 inch vertical at his pro-day, I would be utilizing him on more jump-balls in the end-zone going forward. He could be a mismatch nightmare near the end-zone in the playoffs.
I wouldn’t be shocked to see NFL teams come sniffing around Overton after this season. The Former ELF, and CFL receiver has certainly showcased himself better in the USFL in two seasons than he was able to in college. So far in two seasons he has played in 15 games and produced 41 receptions for 504 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has nearly matched his college production in under half the time as a USFL player, and that’s not considering his stats with the ELF.
Week 10 Preview
The Stars and Panthers face off in a game that will determine who will be the #1 seed in the 2023 USFL playoffs. Playing in Ford Field, it could be argued the Panthers have the advantage playing in front of a true home crowd, but it remains to be seen what the attendance is for a game like this. Considering these two teams have a combined 7-11 record this game isn’t exactly a premier match-up on paper.
If the Stars have any hope of winning this game they need to do a better job of protecting the quarterback, and preventing third and long situations. This might require a dedication to the run game going forward. Finding ways to create third and short will help this team tremendously. They may sit fourth in conversion rate, but at 42.2% on third downs, and 50% on fourth downs, they’re not sustaining drives very well.
The Stars are the third worst team in the league with penalties. Through 9 weeks they have been called for 59 penalties, amounting for 469 yards. This is an average of 6.5 penalties per game for 52 yards per game. I would guess this is also negatively affecting our conversion rate, and increasing the chance of a third and long situation. Coach Andrus has already said multiple times this season “We need to reduce our unforced errors” however the team continues to struggle in this department.
If the Stars hope to help their offense out, this is a good place to start. At this point in the season roster changes should only come as a necessity due to injury. There is no more time left to figure this thing out, and it’s now time to focus on who is on the roster and getting them put in the best position for success.
The good news is the Panthers are nearly as bad in this department with 55 penalties for 442 yards on the season. This could turn into an ugly game quick if these teams don’t focus on playing disciplined football moving forward.
Closely Matched Opponents
Penalties isn’t the only statistical category that we find the Stars and Panthers seeing similar results on. In the passing department:
Stars are ranked third with 1,887 yards total, and 209.7 yards per game with 13 touchdowns and 9 interceptions and average 33.8 passing attempts per game.
Panthers are ranked fourth with 1,693 yards total, average 188.1 yards per game, with 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions they average 32 passing attempts per game.
In the Rushing department the similarities start to fall apart just a bit.
Reggie Corbin stands 5th with 90 carries for 412 yards and 2 touchdowns
Stevie Scott stands 10th with 75 carries for 283 yards and 1 touchdown
Matthew Colburn stands 11th with 77 carries for 264 yards and 4 touchdowns
The 1-2 punch for the Panthers of Corbin and Scott has been an effective pairing this season. The Panthers currently average 77 yards per game from these two men alone. To put that into perspective, the Stars haven’t topped an average of 60 yards per game as a team all season long. The scary thing here, is the Panthers have the backs to dictate game flow, and keep their defense off the field. If the Stars defense is forced to defend the run much of the game, they likely will struggle to win this game given their issues defending the run all season long so far.
The Stars have allowed the most points by any defense this season with 227 points allowed, or 25.7 yards per game while the Panthers have allowed 189 points or 21 points per game. The last time these two teams met, in week two the Panthers scored 24 points, while the Stars mustered just 10 points. While I believe their offensive line has drastically improved since then, the Panthers strength on defense has been their pass rush.
Breeland Speaks is a one man wrecking crew that needs to be our focus offensively all game. Garrett Marino scares me but not because of his pass rush ability, more because he is liable to hurt someone intentionally at any given moment. If we need to double Speaks all game long, and leave Marino one on one with a tackle I am comfortable making that sacrifice to make sure Case Cookus has time to throw. Even if the solution is keeping a tight end or running back in as an extra blocker every play.
This could be the offensive line’s biggest test in recent weeks, especially if Drew Himmelman can’t go which would appear to be the case after the Stars signed two offensive tackles following week 9. If the Stars offense can’t slow down this Panthers pass rush, they likely will not find victory in this game.
However this goes for both teams. Josh Love has been one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the USFL this season. The Stars have a ton of talent on their defensive line, and have been able to shut down opposing quarterbacks at times due to their pass rush. Adam Rodriguez, Carson Taylor, LaBryan Ray, Darius Hodge and Ali Fayad have combined for 13 sacks this season which doesn’t seem like much, but its when these sacks are coming that have been key.
Betting Odds and Predicitons
The Betting Odds this week are brought to you by my personal sponsor BetUS.com. <—Click the link. This game is currently a pick ’em. As in the odds are not slanted toward either team as of yet. The money line is -110 for both teams, and the over/under is 42 points. In this game I am betting the over, and taking the Stars to win the game. It appears as if Vegas is not sold on Josh Love either, given the lack of a point spread. I believe the quarterback play in this game will prove to be the difference, and only a fool would bet on Josh Love to get it together. Lets Go Stars. Clinch that one seed this week!
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