BIRMINGHAM — Skip Holtz, the head coach of the Birmingham Stallions, looked deep into the stat sheet to figure out the deciding factor in his team’s 24-20 victory over the New Orleans Breakers in a critical USFL South matchup at Protective Stadium.

He looked past total yards and third down performance. He skipped over turnovers and penalties, which often are important factors in determining a winner. He stayed away from the individual numbers.

“This one had its ups and downs and twist and turns, for sure,” Holtz said. “We thought it was going one way, then it was going another. I thought it was won in the red zone. We were three (touchdown) out of four and they were one (touchdown) out of four. I thought that was the difference in this football game right there.”

At that point, it comes down to simple math. New Orleans left at least nine points – before extra points – on the field in a four-point loss. What could have been for the Breakers.

“What sticks is kicking a field goal inside the five-yard line early in that game,” said New Orleans quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson after the Breakers fell to 4-3 with their third consecutive setback. “If we punch those in early, it’s definitely a different ball game.”

Reality is that Birmingham is the team that remains in first place in the USFL South with three games left in the regular season. The Stallions improved to 5-2 overall by avenging a loss to the Breakers earlier this season. Not surprisingly, a big key was red zone defense. In the Stallions’ five wins this season, they have limited opponents to just 3 touchdowns in 15 red zone trips. In the two losses, the opponents were seven of nine.

“We work red zone every week and we do an awful lot against each other,” Holtz said. “Practice, for us, we play about half a game. It’s physical and they get after it. They’re competitors and nobody wants to give an inch. We work the red zone every Wednesday and we do it again on Thursday.”

That red zone performance was a big reason that Birmingham built a 24-9 lead late in the third quarter. New Orleans moved the ball well from the opening possession but only had three Matt Coghlin field goals to show for it. Birmingham moved the ball well at times and had touchdown runs by Alex McGough and Ricky Person Jr. and a 20-yard touchdown pass from McGough to Jace Sternberger.

At that point, it looked like the Stallions would cruise to the comfortable win. New Orleans had other plans. Bethel-Thompson found Lee Morris for a 10-yard touchdown with 12:10 left and followed with a two-point conversion pass to Sage Surratt. About six minutes later, Coghlin drilled a 55-yard field goal to trim the deficit to 24-20.

New Orleans’ final possession came with 55 seconds left. The Breakers were 80 yards away from the winning touchdown and appeared to gain a chunk of the needed yards on long pass to Jonathan Adams. The Breakers hustled to the line of scrimmage and Bethel-Thompson appeared to spike the ball to stop the clock. However, officials said the previous play was under review.

After several confusing minutes, during which the ball was moved to different spots on the field, it was ruled an incomplete pass and the ball went back to the Breakers 20-yard line.

“I have no idea what went on there,” said Breakers head coach John DeFilippo. “From my understanding, we completed the ball, we clocked the ball, that last play should be over. Okay. I’ll have to get a ruling on that.”

New Orleans still put itself in position for a Hail Mary. After an incompletion, Bethel-Thompson completed a 42-yard pass to Johnnie Dixon to put the Breakers at the 38-yard line with four seconds on the clock. On the final play, Bethel-Thompson was flushed from the pocket by linebacker Quentin Polling. Bethel-Thompson got the throw off but it was intercepted in the end zone by JoJo Tillery.

“Both teams played hard, both teams put it all out on the field,” Holtz said. “Like somebody said, we want to come in for the celebration. Those guys are in there, like, ‘OK, Coach, we’ll see you tomorrow.’ Those guys are spent.”

Polling certainly earned a rest after contributing 10 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery. Offensively, running back CJ Marable had another big game with 87 yards rushing on 17 carries and six catches for 52 yards. McGough had a rollercoaster afternoon. He was 16 of 23 for 176 yards and had 23 rushing yards but he also was sacked three times.   

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