The fourth week of the 2023 USFL season got off to a wild start as two teams that entered as underdogs not only won outright but dominated. Then the league's only remaining unbeaten showed why it's the team to beat.
On Sunday, the New Orleans Breakers won a battle of division leaders, as the top team in the South knocked off the North-leading New Jersey Generals, 20-17. The Breakers remain the USFL's only unbeaten team at 4-0. Then in the Week 4 finale, the defending champion Birmingham Stallions needed a late 91-yard kick return to hold off the Pittsburgh Maulers.
The weekend's action began on Saturday as the Houston Gamblers shocked the Philadelphia Stars 41-16 behind a three-touchdown day by running back Mark Thompson -- who averaged more than 10 yards per carry. Then the Memphis Showboats, who entered the weekend winless and a 6.5-point underdog, upset the Michigan Panthers 29-10. Showboats kicker Alex Kessman got the game's first six points on the board with two field goals of over 50 yards.
We've got takeaways below from each game. First, a look at the Week 4 scores:
Houston Gamblers 41, Philadelphia Stars 16
Memphis Showboats 29, Michigan Panthers 10
New Orleans Breakers 20, New Jersey Generals 17
Birmingham Stallions 24, Pittsburgh Maulers 20
Breakers only 4-0 team after topping N.J. behind QB-RB combo
Two common themes for the undefeated Breakers has been the steady play of quarterback and former CFL star McLeod Bethel-Thompson and running back Wes Hills. On Sunday, Bethel-Thompson completed over 70% of his throws for 279 yards. The former CFL star completed three passes on the Breakers' game-winning drive to beat the Generals, who entered the game atop the North Division at 2-1.
Per usual, Bethel-Thompson's favorite target was tight end Sage Surratt, who pulled down six passes for 94 yards. The two connected for a 33-yard gain on the game's first drive to help set up Hills' nine-yard touchdown run. Hills' second touchdown of the game -- and league-leading eighth of the season -- gave New Orleans a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter. Along with his 88 rushing yards, Hills racked up 71 more yards on seven catches.
This man can't be stopped!— New Orleans Breakers (@USFLBreakers) May 7, 2023
📺: NBC and Peacock pic.twitter.com/1IgyZq4N3g
Led by linebacker Vontae Diggs, the Breakers' defense held Generals quarterback De'Andre Johnson to just 113 yards on 7 of 14 passing. New Jersey had far more success on the ground, as Johnson, reigning USFL Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor and Trey Williams rushing for a combined 172 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
The Breakers and Generals entered the fourth quarter tied 17-17. A 25-yard field goal by New Orleans kicker Matt Coughlin with 7:10 remaining proved the difference in the game.
Both these teams made the playoffs last season, but lost in the semifinals. Chances are, they'll be in the mix again this year.
Stallions win thriller on Deon Cain's 91-yard kick return
The Stallions went 10-1 last regular season before winning the inaugural USFL championship, but after losing to the Breakers last week and trailing Pittsburgh with less than 7 minutes remaining on Sunday, they were in jeopardy of surpassing their 2022 loss total after just four weeks.
The Maulers had taken a 21-7 lead with 6:52 left in the game on a Troy Williams 34-yard run for a touchdown. And that's when this happened.
91 YARDS TO THE HOUSE FOR @cainera1_ 😤😤😤— Birmingham Stallions (@USFLStallions) May 8, 2023
We're on top 24-20 🐎 pic.twitter.com/fhFDlkw2m8
Deon Cain returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for touchdown, which turned out to be the final points in the game.
Williams, the Maulers' quarterback, was both the team's leading passer (217 yards, no TDs or INTs) and rusher (63 yards, 1 TD). Stallions quarterback Alex McGough threw a pair of costly interceptions, but did have a TD on 157 yards passing. He, too, led his team in rushing (48 yards, 1 TD).
Showboats earn first win as kicker steals show early
The Memphis Showboats entered Week 4 as the league's only winless team, but they changed that with a dominating performance against a Michigan Panthers squad that had entered with just one loss -- and was playing on its home turf at Ford Field in Detroit.
Memphis' first two scores were back-to-back 50-plus yard field goals by Alex Kessman -- a 54-yarder followed by a 53-yarder in the first quarter (Kessman later added a 37-yarder in the third quarter). Kessman was inactive last week, reportedly due to on-field struggles.
Alex Kessman's 54-yard field goal is GOOD 🚤— Memphis Showboats (@USFLShowboats) May 6, 2023
🎥: @nbc | @peacock pic.twitter.com/tWys42ME5o
The Showboats' Anthony Butler helped his team stretch the lead to 13-0 after picking off Michigan quarterback Josh Love to set up a touchdown run by quarterback Cole Kelley. Kelley threw for 151 yards and had two rushing touchdowns -- the Showboats' only TDs on offense. Memphis' defense led the way, with two interceptions as well as a strip sack fumble that was returned to the house by Jeff McCulloch.
GETTING AFTER IT! 🔥🙌— Memphis Showboats (@USFLShowboats) May 7, 2023
Another TD! pic.twitter.com/SLjoo4yIKg
Love had started strong for the Panthers this season, as they began 2-0, but was held to just 58 yards passing with a TD and INT on Saturday. Michigan also played Carson Strong at quarterback, but he fared no better, throwing for 76 yards with no TDs and an INT.
Gamblers' Thompson runs wild; Stars not shining
The Philadelphia Stars reached last year's USFL championship game and there was no reason to think they wouldn't be in the mix again this season, with Case Cookus returning as starting quarterback and the team kicking off 2023 with a victory.
However, it's been nothing but losses for the Stars since the opener, and Saturday's defeat was the most lopsided yet as the Gamblers won by 25 points.
Cookus, who went 24-of-36 for 189 yards with a TD and an INT, is among the league's passing leaders. But Philly's Week 4 rushing leader managed a whopping 16 yards, and its defense is in a tie for allowing the most points this season.
It was a much different story for Houston's rushing attack, as Mark Thompson ran for 134 yards and three TDs on only 13 carries.
#Gamblers get on the board first with this 33-yard touchdown run from Mark Thompson!#HOUvsPHI | #USFL202: pic.twitter.com/1qMBBUNmnO— USFL Center (@USFLCenter) May 6, 2023
Gamblers quarterback Kenji Bahar also had a big game, throwing for 230 yards with 2 TDs and no picks. It was Houston's second straight win after an 0-2 start.