CANTON, Ohio -- The inaugural championship game of the rebooted USFL had everything: great weather, a packed house, big plays and, most importantly, a thrilling game between the league's top two teams. The night ended with the Birmingham Stallions, the league's best team all season, being crowned the champion after posting a 33-30 win over the Philadelphia Stars.
Down 23-20 late, the Stallions took the lead for good on Victor Bolden's touchdown reception on a pass from quarterback Alex McGough, who was playing in relief of injured starter J'Mar Smith. Linebacker Scooby Wright's pick-six moments later proved to be the game's most important play. Philadelphia, which also finished the game with a backup quarterback after Case Cookus injured his leg, clawed back with a late touchdown. But a missed conversion attempt after the score and a last-minute interception sealed the Stars' fate.
Here's a closer look at what went down on Sunday night.
Smith left the game during the Stallions' second possession of the second half after suffering an injury to his midsection. With Smith on the sideline, the Stallions' drive ended with a missed field goal. The Stars -- who had scored first in every game this season going into the championship -- took their first lead on the ensuing possession, shortly after the start of the fourth quarter.
With Smith still sidelined, backup Alex McGough committed the game's first turnover when he fluttered a pass that was picked off by Stars linebacker Jordan Sewell. But after the Stallions' defense minimized the damage by forcing a punt, McGough responded by throwing the go-ahead score.
Cookus, who had directed consecutive scoring drives prior to his injury, left the game for good after taking a sack with 8:25 left. He was carted off after breaking a bone in his leg. His backup, K.J. Costello, threw the pick-six to Wright on his first attempt of the night. He rebounded with a touchdown pass to Chris Rowland with 1:47 left, but he and his teammates were unable to complete the comeback after his final pass was picked off by safety Christian McFarland with 28 seconds left.
Smith finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 10 of 18 passing. Cookus overcame a slow start to throw for 222 yards and three scores on 17 of 29 passing.
With the game taking place on Fourth of July weekend, it's fitting that there were plenty of fireworks, especially in the first half. The list of big plays on Sunday night included:
- Bo Scarbrough's 36-yard TD run to give Birmingham a 10-3 lead.
- Jordan Suell's 25-yard TD catch on Philadelphia's ensuing drive.
- Marlon Williams' 41-yard TD catch less than a minute later that gave the Stallions a 17-9 lead.
- Scarbrough's 70-yard run that set up Brandon Aubrey's short FG on the final play of the first half.
- Dexter Williams' 34-yard catch on a screen pass that set up Suell's second TD catch on Philly's first drive of the second half.
- Wright's 46-yard pick-six with under three minutes left.
Given the final score, Stars defensive back Chris Brown is surely kicking himself after dropping a sure interception at the end of the first half. Instead of an interception, the Stallions ended the half with a field goal that stretched their lead to 20-9.
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Strong fan turnout
The USFL's brass have to be happy with the turnout for Saturday's championship game. Most of the 23,000 seats inside Tom Benson Stadium were full by kickoff, as fans took advantage of a perfect northeast Ohio summer evening.
All three playoff games were played next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The entirety of the league's 10 week regular season was played in Birmingham, Alabama, which might explain Saturday night's partisan Stallions crowd.
The Stars did manage to cover the 4.5-point spread offered by Caesars Sportsbook.
Quote of the game
The sack of Cookus that resulted in his leg injury wasn't the only big hit Philly's QB took. Before throwing his third TD pass, the Stars' leader got hit in the chin by the top of DeMarquis Gates' helmet on a play where the QB had slid. Gates was called for the penalty. Cookus was asked about checking his teeth after he got up: "I've got my wedding coming up in a couple of days, didn't want my fiancee to kill me," he said.
You can relive all the action in our live blog below.