Entering Week 5, the Birmingham Stallions are the USFL’s sole undefeated team.
They’ve won by overcoming second-half deficits in all four of their games.
They’ve won by putting up the points, averaging a league-best 24.8 per game.
They’ve won with both of their quarterbacks, Alex McGough and J’Mar Smith.
They’ve won with an ex-soccer player, Brandon Aubrey, being a steady kicker in a league where some kickers have been anything but.
And last week against the Tampa Bay Bandits, they won with defense – holding the Bandits to a single offensive touchdown and 158 total yards in a 16-10 victory.
The Stallions have shown their mettle in starting the season 4-0. But their head coach, Skip Holtz, feels there’s still work to do.
“I think we’re close in a lot of areas, but I think if we can ever put it all together and we can start clicking on offense and humming around on defense the way we are – I think we’re a talented football team that has a chance to be really good,” Holtz told NBC Sports Wednesday ahead of his team’s next matchup with the Philadelphia Stars (Sunday, 12 p.m. ET on NBC).
“When your defense is playing as good as it is, we just have to make sure offensively that we’re not the ‘Bad News Bears’ turning the ball over, throwing pick-sixes, putting the ball in danger and giving our defense a short field. If we’re going to [lose], let’s at least make somebody beat us.
“And I think offensively, we’re getting closer. We’re getting to the point where I start to feel like we can really open it up if we need to and we’re not going to turn the ball over.”
- When: Sunday, May 15 at 12:00 p.m. ET on NBC
- Where: Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama
- Live stream: NBCSports.com
The 2-2 Stars perhaps present both an opportunity and a challenge.
The Stars’ defense has allowed an average of 23.8 points (tied for league-worst) and 356.3 net yards (next-to-worst in league) per game. However, cornerback Channing Stribling leads the league with four interceptions.
And their offense remains more than happy to test the secondary (league-high 68.5% passing plays), even as Case Cookus has taken over as starting quarterback for the injured Bryan Scott.
With his offense seeking to rebound from its worst outing of the season, Holtz goes back to the need to protect the ball and give his defense – led last week by linebacker Scooby Wright (six tackles, one sack) – better opportunity to dictate things.
“When you have a defense like we have and a kicking game like we have, my mindset is, ‘Let’s not turn the ball over, let’s not put our defense in a bad position, and let’s make people go 80 yards against our defense,'” he said.
Meanwhile, as Holtz and the Stallions try to refine their winning formula, the locals have responded to what they’re seeing from them on the field.
All eight USFL teams are based in Birmingham, Alabama for this first season. But only the Stallions have a true home-field advantage, drawing sizable crowds to Protective Stadium for their games each week.
They have effectively become their 12th man. We shouldn’t be surprised. Alabama is a football-crazy state after all. But while most of us think of the Crimson Tide and Tigers, the city of Birmingham itself has hosted numerous teams from alternative pro leagues since the 1970s – including the Stallions from the original USFL (1983-85).
From the new USFL’s Opening Night on Apr. 16 – when the Stallions won a 28-24 thriller over the New Jersey Generals – the “Magic City” has had their team’s back.
“We were struggling on offense in the first half and it seemed like they started cheering louder for the defense,” Holtz said of the crowd at that first game. “And the defense kept us in it until the second half when the offense got stuff going. I think we not only learned a lot about our team and their makeup and their competitive nature, but we also learned a lot about this fanbase.
“They were awesome and have been awesome ever since. The opening game obviously had a lot of buzz to it, but our crowds have been great each and every week and it’s been very loud. [It’s been] a very football-knowledgeable crowd.”
It’s left Holtz optimistic about the future of the league, which plans to put all teams in their respective home cities in the years ahead.
It’s also added to his belief that coaching at the pro level has been “a breath of fresh air” after spending his entire coaching career at the college level.
Before joining the Stallions, Holtz was head coach at Louisiana Tech for nine seasons. But he was let go ahead of the Bulldogs’ 2021 season finale after his team went 3-8 in the season’s first 11 games.
Eventually, Holtz received a call from USFL president of football operations Brian Woods, who asked to talk with him about the new league. Holtz was impressed and decided it was time to give pro ball a try.
He hasn’t regretted it, especially with having players that are older, more mature, and able to focus solely on football – as opposed to those in college, who must balance the gridiron, the classroom, and campus life in general.
“Friday, when you get done in college, you take them to a hotel, you take them to a movie, have a team meeting that night, wake up the next morning, have a meeting, have a walkthrough, make sure everything doesn’t go in one ear and out another,” Holtz explained.
“With these (pro) guys, when you’re done with practice on Friday, they go home to their wife and kids. They study their playbook. They come back the next morning – they’re all business. You don’t have to worry about everyone clowning around and you’ve got to get them serious and re-centered for game day. They’re ready to play. It’s a real testament to these players and the leadership we have on this team.”
Like his players, Holtz sees the USFL as an opportunity. It’s somewhat of a different attitude than the one his father had when he transitioned from college to the pros.
Long before he led Notre Dame to the 1988 National Championship, Lou Holtz became head coach of the NFL’s New York Jets in 1976.
But Lou’s tenure was unsuccessful. His Jets went 3-10 before he resigned with one game left in the season. It was his lone coaching appearance at the pro level.
“(Lou) always says he went to pro ball with a ‘Let’s see if I like it’ attitude, not ‘Let’s go make this work,” Skip Holtz said. “And the biggest thing he told me is, ‘Enjoy it. Jump in with both feet and go enjoy it.'”
He’s taken his Dad’s advice to heart. And as he and the Stallions seek to build a winning tradition, he says he’s enjoyed building relationships with these players as much as anywhere he’s been.
To him, that’s the best part of all.
“Everyone has a story,” he said. “They all have a why. They’re all here for a reason. They’re here because they love this game. They’re here because they want another opportunity. They’re here because some of them may get an opportunity in the NFL. Others might play in the USFL for two or three years.
“But they love the game and that’s the thing where I’ve enjoyed so much about it… Being around guys that are so passionate about the game, and guys that are so professional about their trade.”
Friday, May 13
Saturday, May 14
- New Orleans Breakers at New Jersey Generals – 3:00 p.m. on Fox
Sunday, May 15
- Birmingham Stallions at Philadelphia Stars – 12:00 p.m. on NBC
- Pittsburgh Maulers at Houston Gamblers – 4:00 p.m. on Fox