I want to start this off by saying congratulations to the USFL. There has been talk all season about on-field play being sloppy, attendance being poor, and viewership being low. In the Championship game, attendance was solid, the on-field play wasn’t terrible either.
This game looked like it had the makings of a blow-out heading into half-time. The Stallions had a 20-9 lead, with the ball coming back to them after half-time. However, the Stars shut out the Stallions’ offense in the 3rd quarter, scoring 6 points on offense. Heading into the fourth quarter the score was now 20-15 and the game seemed to be just getting started.
With the clock hitting zeros on the fourth quarter, the teams started holding up their four fingers symbolizing they believed the fourth quarter was theirs for the taking. The Stallions drove down-field on their first drive taking a full 6:13 off the clock. During this drive, however, they would lose J’Mar Smith to injury and he would not return.
Fourth Quarter Frenzy
This drive began what would be a flurry of points. The Stars’ defense tightens up when they hit the RedZone, and stop the Stallions on the 30-yard line. Brandon Aubrey who has been money in the bank all season long as the USFL kicking points leader misses a 38-yard field goal. The score remains at 20-15, and the Stars take over on the 20-yard line. The Stars then drive 72 yards down the field and score a touchdown taking the lead, 21-20. Next, the Stars opt to go for 2 and convert on the attempt putting them up by 3 points.
With Alex McGough in the game, the Stallions manage to drive 35 yards in just 3 plays. However, on the 4th play the defense, namely linebacker Jordan Moore, jumps the route and intercepts the pass. Stars ball with a 3-point lead.
This drive for the Stars ended about as ugly as it could have. On first down, they call a sweep with Paul Terry and he is stopped for a 2-yard gain. On second down, Cookus fires a pass for Bug Howard that gets tipped by the defense and falls incomplete. On third down, Case Cookus is sacked for an 8-yard loss and winds up being carted off the field.
Next Man Up
With QB2 gone, almost exactly 9 weeks removed from taking over the starting job, Kj Costello was forced to enter the game. Fans, myself included were not phased. Costello had seen playing time to this point and had played decently when called upon.
This drive however was over given that it was 4th and 16 so Costello would have to wait for his turn. On the next play, the Stallions drove 64 yards for a touchdown. With the game on the line, Brandon Aubrey missed an extra point leaving the lead at 3.
Costello enters the game, and on his first passing attempt throws a dangerous pass. Scooby Wright, aka Shark Dog, jumps the route and takes it to the house for a touchdown. This game looks like it is over right here.
Comeback in the Works?
Not so fast says, Kj Costello. Costello comes out the next drive and gets in a rhythm immediately. He finds Dexter Williams on a well-designed screen for 23 yards. The Stars follow that with a pass to Maurice Alexander who gains 13 more yards. Two-minute warning hits.
On the very next play, Costello attempts to go back to Alexander but defensive back J. Tillery gets in the way and breaks up the pass. Costello is undeterred, he comes out on the next play and completes a short pass to Devin Gray who takes it 10 yards and gets out of bounds conserving those crucial timeouts. Costello would ultimately find Chris Rowland on the next play in the middle of the endzone on a beautiful pass.
Stars are now down by just 3 points and enact the USFL’s version of an onside kick. The 4th and 12 play. Costello drops back to pass, avoids pressure, and rolls to his left slightly. Fires a pass for Chris Rowland, and Tillery gets a hand in there and tips the pass. Rowland makes a diving attempt at the ball but ultimately can’t corral it.
Could this be it for the Stars?
The Birmingham Stallions come out on offense with 1:43 on the clock. The Stars wisely had saved their timeouts for this occasion. They would need all three on this drive if they hoped to get the ball back. After leaving the game for a while Bo Scarbrough returned to the field of play for this drive. On first down, he was stopped for a 1-yard loss.
On second down he was able to gain that yard back. With the anticipation of what was to come building the offense and defense lined up for 3rd and 10, with the game very much coming down to this moment. A conversion here would spell the end of the game for the Stars.
Ultimately the Stallions opt for the safe play and call another run play. The Stars’ defense stops the back once again this time allowing just 1 more yard. Three plays, net gain of 2 yards. The Stallions nearly consider attempting a field goal. Instead, they call a timeout and rethink the decision.
Special Teams Gaffe
They ultimately decided to send the punter Colby Wadman on the field. He booms a beautiful punt with solid hang time that lands right inside the five-yard line. Just beyond the waving arm of Maurice Alexander who had angled himself in such a way that it made it hard for the gunners to approach the ball as it sailed over his head with forward momentum into the endzone.
One slip up, and the Stars gain 15 yards or more. The drive starts with promise due to this, and the offense can feel the momentum on their side at the moment. On first down, Costello finds Bug Howard for a 7-yard gain. On second and three, Costello evades pressure once again and rolls to his left. He has an open receiver on the sideline ready to get around 5-10 yards and get out of bounds with a first down easily in hand.
Costello waves him up the sideline on the play and opts to attempt the deep shot. A defender leaps in front of the receiver snatches the ball out of midair, and just like that…the Stars lose the game in dramatic fashion.
A fourth quarter that saw two quarterbacks leave the game, three interceptions, and a total of 28 points scored, couldn’t have been a better way to wrap up the first season of the USFL. In my mind, this game answered a lot of questions for FOX and the USFL heading into season two. Most importantly, the USFL championship game was trending across social media, and fans were in the stands for the first time in the Northern location of Canton.
Cookus Injury Update
Early reports out of Canton are that Case Cookus has suffered a broken fibula. This is a rough blow for a quarterback that I believe answered a lot of questions about his play this season. I believe he would have had NFL teams sniffing around him had he not been injured in this game. However, he will be able to rehab and return for the Stars in time for next season.
Unfortunately for Captain Cookus, and his soon-to-be wife, he will not be healed in time to walk down the aisle unaided or without a cast on his leg. I would be willing to bet that was the first thing on his mind when he received the news. I feel for Case, he has been the epitome of what Philadelphia wants in its quarterbacks. Toughness, grit, and leadership. The only positive about this situation for the Stars is they likely will be able to return both of their drafted quarterbacks from the 2022 season.
This game was an amazing game to watch as a USFL fan. It was exciting in the second half, with many lead changes. The injury situations added to the intrigue the game already had, and as it went the game seemed to ramp up more and more. This was the exact display of football the USFL needed to carry momentum into 2023. If they intend to have a presence in the Northeast, they need more games like this in front of home crowds. With Philadelphia on the list of potential Northern Hubs, could we see this solid showing play a factor in the decision-making for hubs in 2023?
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