NFC North Reporter
NFC West Writer
Week 4 of the 2023 USFL season is here, with all eight teams in action in two different powerhouse cities this weekend.
Saturday’s action features a pair of games, starting with the Houston Gamblers taking on the Philadelphia Stars. That’s followed by a highly anticipated matchup between the Memphis Showboats and the Michigan Panthers. Both games will take place at Ford Field, home of the NFL‘s Detroit Lions.
On Sunday, the USFL will have two games at the iconic Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, with the New Orleans Breakers facing the New Jersey Generals, followed by the Birmingham Stallions against the Pittsburgh Maulers.
Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s matchups, from FOX Sports’ Carmen Vitali and Eric D. Williams.
Houston Gamblers (1-2) vs. Philadelphia Stars (1-2)
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Houston Gamblers appear to be on the rise. The Philadelphia Stars appear to be slipping. Is this the week either of those things change?
The Gamblers are coming off a spectacular come-from-behind victory over the Memphis Showboats in Week 3 while the Stars have lost back-to-back games for the first time since the USFL returned to action last season.
[Inside The Drive: See how Gamblers rallied for win]
This will be the Stars’ second game in Detroit in as many weeks, and when they take on the Gamblers (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) they’ll hope to change their fortunes from Week 3.
Will the Stars get back to early season form?
After the first game of the season, it looked like the Philadelphia Stars would have no problem making it back to the USFL championship. The next week ended up as a bit of a reality check as Philadelphia lost to the Michigan Panthers, who look to be much improved over last season.
Things really went off the rails last week, when quarterback Case Cookus threw two interceptions for the second game in a row. Philadelphia had a total of three turnovers in the game, which proved too much to overcome.
The Stars are averaging a league-worst 2.75 yards per carry, not allowing Cookus any sort of run game to lean on.
That being said, the Stars are holding their own in the passing attack, averaging 220.3 passing yards per game, which ranks third in the league. Their leading receiver, Corey Coleman, already has 311 all-purpose yards this season, 211 of which are as a receiver. Philadelphia also has the third-best third-down conversion rate of any team in the league, converting at a 44.4% rate. If they can supplement that with a more balanced offense, the Stars should be able to return to form.
Can Gamblers keep rolling?
Running back Mark Thompson returned to his 2022 standards in Week 3. After leading the league in rushing yards last season, Thompson found that form against the Showboats, finishing with 84 yards on 21 carries and a pair of touchdowns. The Gamblers leaned heavily on their ground game to ensure last week’s win, finishing with a total of 132 rushing yards overall.
Even as Memphis mounted a comeback late in the game, the Houston defense held on just enough to give the Gamblers offense one last possession. Quarterback Kenji Bahar then drove his unit the length of the field, winning the game on a touchdown pass to wide receiver Justin Hall, his second score of the game.
“I peeked, and the corner had left,” Hall said after the game. “He went with the outside receiver, and I just knew I was wide open. Kenji (Bahar) made a great pass. The O-line held their own, everybody did their 1-of-11, and we ended up with the win.”
It was set up by a beautiful long ball over the middle to tight end Josh Pederson. If Houston can keep its offense clicking, the Stars will have their hands full trying to get back in the win column.
— By Carmen Vitali
Memphis Showboats (0-3) vs. Michigan Panthers (2-1)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC
The Michigan Panthers are coming off their first loss of the season while the Memphis Showboats are looking for their first win.
That will be the overarching storyline on Saturday when the two teams kick off a full weekend slate of USFL games between Detroit and Canton.
Michigan opened play in the USFL’s much-anticipated return to Detroit last week. On hand were Detroit sports legends Ben Wallace and Calvin Johnson, as the raucous crowd cheered on the hometown team. But the New Jersey Generals proved too much for the Panthers, exploiting run lanes and amassing 198 yards on the ground against Mike Nolan’s squad. Jersey seemingly provided the blueprint for how to attack the previously streaking Panthers, and the Showboats should take notice.
Meanwhile, Memphis sits in the cellar of this week’s power rankings, and it’s in large part due to their lack of a ground game. Showboats running backs carried the ball just 11 times for a total of four yards last Sunday. Fixing that should be priority No. 1 as the Showboats come into Detroit.
Can Panthers’ offensive stars get back on track?
Josh Love came into Week 3 as the unquestioned starter for the Panthers. Having earned USFL Offensive Player of the Week to open the season, the gap between him and backup Carson Strong seemed significant.
But Love struggled against the Generals, finishing 15 of 31 for 101 yards and throwing an interception into double coverage. Meanwhile, Strong, who was put in to finish out the first half, engineered a nine-play, 66-yard drive that was capped off with the Panthers’ only touchdown of the game. Love was put back in to start the second half but despite possessing the ball for 30 of the first 37 plays, came up with just one field goal to show for it.
Not only was Love’s performance lacking, but Michigan’s other offensive spark, running back Reggie Corbin, had an uncharacteristically down day. New Jersey held him to just 38 rushing yards on eight carries.
Provided both Love (or maybe even Strong) can get going under center against a struggling Memphis team with the help of Corbin on the ground, the Panthers should be able to right the ship not only this week but again in Week 5 against Pittsburgh, which sits at No. 7 in FOX Sports’ latest power rankings.
Will Showboats get their first win of the season?
Yes, Memphis is sitting at the bottom of the South Division, but there is a glimmer of hope in former Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Cole Kelley. Despite last week’s loss to the Houston Gamblers, Kelley completed 21 of 38 passes for a whopping 307 yards and two touchdowns against one interception.
The Showboats even tied the game against the Gamblers last week on a fourth-down trick play that saw running back Alex Collins take the direct snap and float a pass to tight end Jay Jay Wilson in the back of the end zone for the score.
And while he got help under center, the problem was that Kelley didn’t get much help in the way of a balanced offense overall. If Memphis can figure out its rushing woes and Kelley has another game like last week, it won’t be long before the Showboats show something in the win column.
— By Carmen Vitali
New Orleans Breakers (3-0) vs. New Jersey Generals (2-1)
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on NBC
The lone undefeated team remaining in the USFL, the New Orleans Breakers (3-0) take their perfect record on the road to face the New Jersey Generals (2-1), 3 p.m. ET at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio on Sunday.
Led by first-year head coach John DeFilippo, the Breakers have been one of the pleasant surprises of the USFL so far this season, knocking off the defending champs, the Birmingham Stallions in a 45-31 shootout last week.
The Breakers take on another team playing well in the Generals. After losing in Week 1 to the Stallions, New Jersey has won two straight, including a 28-13 victory over the Michigan Panthers at Ford Field in Week 3.
Here’s one big question for the Breakers and Generals to consider as they head into this weekend’s matchup:
New Orleans Breakers: Can DeFilippo keep this offense rolling?
Through three weeks, the Breakers have the USFL’s leading passer in McLeod Bethel-Thompson (857 yards), the leading rusher in Wes Hills (301 yards), and the leading receiver in tight end Sage Surratt (257 yards).
The Breakers also lead the league in total yards (393) and points scored per game (35).
So, what can the Breakers do for an encore?
“We put ourselves in the position to be at the top of the division,” DeFilippo said. “And obviously that was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, and it is very attainable. But we have to keep going. We are not even close. We are not even close to being there. So, it is pedal to the metal.”
New Orleans gets another tough test by taking on a New Jersey defense that is holding opponents to a league-low 14.3 points per game.
Defensively, the Generals are led by linebacker Chris Orr, who has 28 combined tackles and a sack through three games. Joining Orr in New Jersey’s strong effort on that side of the ball are defensive linemen Tyshun Render (two sacks) and Toby Johnson (1.5 sacks), along with cornerback D.J. Daniel (two interceptions).
“This guy has played some really good football for us,” Generals head coach Mike Riley said about Daniel. “He has taken advantage of being in the USFL and developing his playing skills. And he takes it real serious, so I’m really proud with how he’s played.
“And defensively, we’ve really made it hard on teams.”
New Jersey Generals: Can Darius Victor play keep away from explosive Breakers’ offense?
While the Breakers have the top-scoring offense in the league, the Generals lead the USFL in rushing by averaging 169 yards a contest.
Victor tops New Jersey with 228 rushing yards on 32 carries, for 7.1 yards per carry. Victor also has two rushing touchdowns.
The Offensive Player of the Year in the USFL last season, Victor will have to run well to give the Generals a chance to slow down New Orleans’ high-octane offense.
However, it could be tough sledding for New Jersey’s offense on the ground, as the Breakers have held teams to just 76 yards per game.
— By Eric D. Williams
Birmingham Stallions (2-1) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-2)
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app
Skip Holtz and the Birmingham Stallions (2-1) are looking to get back to their winning ways when they face the Pittsburgh Maulers (1-2) in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Tom Benson Memorial Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app).
The defending USFL champions lost their first game of the season last week against the New Orleans Breakers, giving up 45 points in the loss.
The Stallions will look to improve defensively against a Pittsburgh offense that finally found a spark last week, with Maulers head coach Ray Horton earning his first victory, 21-13 over the Philadelphia Stars.
“I hope what happens is the guys now trust and believe in the process of what we’re doing,” Horton said. “Obviously, will be playing Birmingham this weekend, and it offers another chance to do something different, whatever they bring to the table. So, what will try to do is build. Obviously, success and confidence go hand and hand. … For us, it’s trust and belief.”
Birmingham Stallions: How can defense limit explosive plays?
The Stallions allowed nine plays of 20-plus yards against the Breakers in Birmingham’s 45-31 humbling loss last week. So, limiting big plays will be a point of emphasis defensively for the Stallions when they face Pittsburgh on the road.
Birmingham has allowed a league-high 153 rushing yards per contest through three games.
“I thought they played more physical than we did,” Holtz said about his team’s loss to New Orleans. “I thought in the trenches on both sides of the ball, they won the line of scrimmage, and it’s hard to win a football game (like that). They’ve got a good football team, and they wanted it. I told the team, you wear that crown for a while, and if you start believing it, it’s going to eat you up.”
Holtz said he’s hopeful to get a couple of players back on defense — including linebacker Scooby Wright — to help tighten things up on the side of the ball. The Stallions face a Pittsburgh offense that ran for 137 yards in last week’s win over the Stars, led by quarterback Troy Williams, who rushed for 65 yards on seven carries.
Pittsburgh Maulers: Can Maulers continue to ride kicker Chris Blewitt?
It’s unusual for a team to get a spark from a kicker, but that’s what happened for Pittsburgh when Blewitt joined the team last week.
“When Chris first came in, he was just warming up, and he kept moving back, and back and back,” Horton said. “We brought the whole group up just to put a little pressure on him, and he made a 62-yarder with room to spare.
“And I think the guys thought, here we go. Little things mean a lot, and Chris means a lot to us.”
Blewitt finished 5-for-5 on field goals last week, including a long of 50 yards. But he missed his only extra-point attempt.
The Maulers also have benefited from strong returns on special teams. Isaiah Hennie leads the league in punt return yards with 161. Hennie has 82- and 53-yard punt returns to his credit already this season, while teammate Josh Simmons had a 56-yard kickoff return last week.
The big returns created short fields for the Maulers, making it easier for the offense to get into scoring position last week. Horton also made the switch from James Morgan to Williams at quarterback in Week 3, and the Utah product’s added dimension as a runner helped create more juice for the Maulers on offense.
“Whether it’s dance or music, you feel the rhythm,” Horton said about the improved way his offense performed last week. “And to me, it just had a different look throughout the week. The players took ownership of what we were doing, and responsibility. And I think that’s what it was, more than anything.”
— By Eric D. Williams
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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