BIRMINGHAM — Austin Watkins caught a touchdown pass on his first USFL snap. J'Mar Smith and Alex McGough each threw a touchdown on their first pass on Saturday. The defense forced two turnovers and played light outs in the red zone, including a goal-line stand.
That pretty much covers the recipe for the defending USFL champion Birmingham Stallions' 27-10 victory over the New Jersey Generals on Saturday night at Protective Stadium.
"It's great to win," said Stallions head coach Skip Holtz. "We talked about we're going to learn a lot about our team this week. Championship teams go through stages. We talked a little bit about that this morning. There are stages when we're going to find out what type of team we have. How much heart we have, how much drive, desire, passion, togetherness."
On a night when a slew of injuries may change the course of the next few weeks, the Stallions persevered.
"I'm just really proud of them and the things they did," said Holtz, whose team played in the second half without quarterback J'Mar Smith, linebacker Scooby Wright III, tight end Bobby Holly and wide receiver Marlon Williams, who were all injured in the game.
Watkins, a former All-Conference USA receiver at UAB, was one of the additions to the Stallions roster in the offseason to add a spark to the passing game. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound provided that immediately, getting behind the defense, running down a well-thrown deep ball by Smith and tumbling into the end zone. It was his only catch of the night, but it was a big one.
That momentum didn't last for long. New Jersey was able to tie the game late in the half after Smith threw an interception just two plays after an impressive goal-line stand. New Jersey cornerback DJ Daniel grabbed the interception at the Stallions' 20-yard line. Birmingham's defense stepped up to force the field goal.
The Stallions then responded with a nine-play, 66-yard drive that began with 1:44 on the clock. Smith threw for 43 yards on the drive, and Davion Davis' 7-yard run set the Stallions up at the 6-yard line. But Smith had to hustle out of the game after dislocating a finger on his final throw. McGough hustled onto to the field and lofted the ball over a pair of defenders to find a leaping Jace Sternberger for a 6-yard scoring pass with four seconds left in the half.
"It just boosts morale, especially with J'Mar hurting his finger," McGough said.
That also carried over to the Birmingham defense.
"For us as a defense, it lowered the morale of the other team," said Christian McFarland, who had a game-high 12 tackles. "We know we got the upper hand on them, knowing that the momentum is in our favor, knowing our offense has our back."
The hope was to score on the first drive out of the half, but that didn't work out. However, the Stallions' defense forced a fumble on a hit by defensive end Joe Jackson on quarterback Dakota Prukop. Defensive lineman Darrion Daniels recovered at the New Jersey 45-yard line.
McGough found C.J. Marable for an 11-yard gain and then burst for a 29-yard touchdown to give the Stallions breathing room.
Smith was 10 of 15 passing for 160 yards before his injury. McGough threw for 68 yards and rushed for 52 yards. Sternberger, who was a huge offseason addition, had five catches for 62 yards. The Stallions has trouble running the football with 88 yards on 21 carries.
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