Ladies and gentlemen, we've got playoff football in June. The rebooted USFL -- unlike the AAF and XFL before it -- completed a full 10-game regular season before holding its playoff semifinals Saturday from Canton, Ohio.
Saturday's winners, the Philadelphia Stars and Birmingham Stallions, will face off Sunday, July 3 in the USFL championship game. The teams played back in Week 5, when the Stallions shut out the Stars in the second half en route to a 30-17 win.
The Stars punched their ticket to the championship game by stunning a Generals team that lost just one game during the regular season and had beaten Philly twice. The Stars enjoyed a 10-0 halftime lead before New Jersey stars Darius Victor and KaVontae Turpin gave the Generals the lead with just under 11 minutes left. Philadelphia responded with a field goal, two defensive stands and the game-winning score, an 88-yard punt return by Maurice Alexander.
Birmingham advanced to the title game by winning its 10th game of the season and third over the Breakers. After falling behind early, the Stallions scored three second-quarter touchdowns to take a 21-14 lead into intermission. Birmingham tied the score on J'Marr Smith's 23-yard touchdown pass to Osirus Mitchell. They took their first lead on DeMarquis Gates' pick-six of Kyle Sloter, who moments later tied the score on his 35-yard touchdown pass to running back Jordan Ellis. The score was tied for just nine seconds, as Stallions receiver Victor Bolden's kickoff return for a score gave Birmingham the lead for good. A short touchdown run by Smith with 45 seconds left in the game made the final score deceiving in how close the semifinal actually was.
Here's a closer look at how the Stallions and Stars played their way into next Sunday's championship game. You can relive the action as it happened in our live blog below.
Stallions 31, Breakers 17
Smith, despite leading the Stallions to a 9-1 regular season record, has been somewhat overlooked when discussing the USFL's top players. A former Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Smith scored two touchdowns while leading an offense that scored on 13, 14 and 15-play drives.
First USFL kickoff return for TD
The third special teams score of the day (more on the other two below) was turned in by Bolden, who recorded the USFL's first kickoff return for a touchdown. Bolden's 90-yard return gave the Stallions a 21-14 halftime lead.
Breakers tight end Sal Cannella was nearly unstoppable. The Breakers tight end and former Auburn Tiger caught 12 passes for 154 yards against the Stallions' formidable defense. Cannella finished sixth in the USFL in receptions and 11th in receiving yards during the regular season.
Birmingham goes old school
Stallions coach Skip Holtz dusted off an old yet effective formation. Birmingham ran several plays out of the T-formation, a run-heavy formation that features four men in the backfield. The Stallions enjoyed considerable success using the T, specifically former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, who amassed 65 total yards on 14 touches.
Stars 19, Generals 14
The only punt return for a score during the regular season was turned in by Turpin, the USFL's MVP. Two punts were returned for scores in the final 11 minutes of Saturday's Stars-Generals tilt. Turpin gave the Generals a 14-10 lead with his 78-yard return with 10:30 left. Turpin's thunder was stolen minutes later by Alexander, whose return gave the Stars the lead for good with 1:41 left.
Defense doesn't rest
Both Philadelphia and New Jersey's defenses put forth championship efforts on Saturday. The Generals forced a pair of turnovers while holding Phildelpjhia to 1-of-5 efficiency in the red zone.
Prior to Saturday's game, USFL executive VP Daryl Johnston predicted that a key matchup would be Victor and the Generals' running game against the Stars' stout defensive line. Johnson's words proved to be prophetic, as Philadelphia's defense stuffed Victor on fourth-and-goal from the 7-yard-line at the end of the first half. Victor, the league's Offensive Player of the Year, finished with 64 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Case Cookus' running played an integral role in the Stars' win. Cookus led the Stars in rushing (averaging 9.8 yards-per-carry) while scoring the game's first TD on an eight-yard run. He finished the game despite sustaining a hip injury that temporarily left him sidelined.
Down 3-0, the Generals were threatening to get on the scoreboard before Mazzi Wilkins picked off Luis Perez and returning it 83 yards. Wilkins' pick stood despite the play initially being flagged for roughing the passer. Philadelphia capitalized on the pick and the overturn, as Cookus scored the game's first TD moments later. The pick was the first in 153 attempts for Perez, who went 19 of 25 for 191 yards.
Generals streak snapped
New Jersey lost for the first time since April 16, when they fell to the Stallions in the USFL's first game of the season. New Jersey proceeded to win its next nine games that included two wins against the Stars.