Backup quarterback Alex McGough delivered the unexpected and linebacker Scooby Wright did what was expected from him by being in the right place at the right time.
Welcome to the oversimplified version of how the Birmingham Stallions won the United States Football League championship with a thrilling 33-30 victory over the Philadelphia Stars on Sunday night in Tom Benson Stadium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“Everybody has a story on how they got here,” said Birmingham Stallions head coach Skip Holtz. “Seeing the smiles on everybody’s faces is unbelievable, and it’s about all of them.
“I’m blessed by the opportunity to coach these young men.”
Plenty of game-altering plays were made in a contest that included an explosive first-half performance by Birmingham running back Bo Scarborough, several Houdini-like escapes by Philadelphia quarterback Case Cookus, a pair of backup quarterbacks in the game down the stretch and 20 points scored in the final 3:16.
However, perhaps none helped the decide the game more than McGough coming off the bench to deliver the go-ahead touchdown pass to game MVP Victor Bolden Jr. and the inspirational Wright providing the ultimate winning points by grabbing an errant pass, racing 46 yards and tumbling into the end zone.
“They played the last few plays of the game better than we did,” said Philadelphia Stars head coach Bart Andrus.
Birmingham quarterbacks J’Mar Smith and McGough combined for 208 yards passing and two passing touchdowns. Bo Scarbrough, a mid-season addition to the roster, rushed for a game-high 135 yards on just 13 carries, averaging 10.4 yards per carry with a touchdown. Wide receiver Marlon Williams paced Birmingham with seven catches and 105 yards receiving, while Bolden, Jr. recorded 156 all-purpose yards.
Christian McFarland, who sealed the game with an interception with less than 30 seconds remaining, led the Stallions with seven tackles. All-USFL Defensive Team honoree DeMarquis Gates also logged seven tackles, recording a half-sack and two pass breakups in the championship victory.
Largely thanks to Scarborough and a bend-but-don’t-break defense, the Stallions (11-1) also played the first 24 minutes better than the Stars (7-5). Scarborough had 123 yards on his first four carries, including a 36-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and a 70-yard scamper that set up a short field goal by Brandon Aubrey to give the Stallions a 20-9 lead heading into halftime.
Birmingham also scored on a 41-yard pass from starting quarterback J’Mar Smith to Marlon Williams. Philadelphia moved the ball well for much of the half but managed just three field goals by Luis Aguilar.
Philadelphia turned things around in the second half, forcing a three-and-out on Birmingham’s opening possession. The Stars then used a methodical 12-play, 94-yard drive to climb back to within a single score. The drive took 7:36 off the clock, including three third-down conversions, culminating when Cookus scrambled away from pressure and fired the ball to an open Jordan Suell. The Stars failed to convert the two-point conversion and trailed, 20-15.
After a missed Birmingham field goal, the Stars again had a long scoring drive but this one was much quicker. The Stars traveled 72 yards on seven plays with Devin Gray scoring on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Cookus and Suell’s two-point conversion reception gave Philadelphia a 23-20 lead with 11:18 remaining.
McGough, who was in the game because of an injury to Smith, threw an interception four plays into the ensuing drive. However, the momentum swung back to the Birmingham side when Cookus stepped up to avoid the outside pressure of safety JoJo Tillery on 3rd-and-8 and defensive end Dondrea Tillman spun the Philadelphia quarterback to the ground. Cookus suffered a broken fibula on the play and was taken off the field on a cart.
McGough, who was a backup most of the season after being the first player picked in the USFL draft by the Stallions, shrugged off the earlier interception to move the Stallions down the field.
“We have plenty of confidence in Alex, man,” Bolden said. “He’s a playmaker with the ball in his hands. We knew that we are just going to take it one play at a time and guys were going to step up and make the play when their numbers were called.”
Eventually, McGough delivered a perfectly placed strike to Bolden, who beat the defender to the outside, for an 8-yard touchdown reception.
“It was an RPO (run-pass option),” Holtz said. “I thought Alex McGough did a good job of reading one-on-one for him, that means you throw it to him. There was only one on him, one of the few times tonight, he made a great play.”
On the next play from scrimmage, Philadelphia backup quarterback KJ Costello tried to hit a crossing receiver but the ball sailed into Wright’s hands. The Birmingham linebacker did the rest and Birmingham led 30-20 with 2:53 left.
Costello settled down to direct a touchdown drive but the Stallions made a couple of late defensive plays to emerge with the win.
“It’s kind of how we got here – we won with offense at times, we won with defense at times,’’ Holtz said. “It takes it all. It seems every time we get down, it’s like, ‘Alright, what do we gotta do. Let’s quit messing around and put the ball in the end zone.’”
To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819News.com.
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