In a bizarre turn of events this past weekend we were treated to two playoff previews in week 10. In a league that has just eight teams with four advancing to the playoffs, somehow we got to see Birmingham vs Michigan and San Antonio vs St. Louis. After a one point victory over Michigan in Birmingham, the Stallions will run it back in the playoffs. 

Being tasked with facing the same team two weeks in a row is not easy as you could see two very different game plans in consecutive weeks. Hindsight is always 20/20 but it would stand to reason Michigan spent the last two weeks installing plays no one has seen before to keep Birmingham reeling. Knowing week 10 was nothing more than a meaningless game why not spend two weeks focusing on the Stallions, and how you can beat them in the game that matters? 

Playoffs Present New Challenges

For two seasons the USFL ran through Birmingham both literally, given the hub was initially there, and figuratively as we saw them win The Stallions are the only USFL team to play all their home games as true home games since the inception of the league, unless you consider Memphis and New Orleans two different teams. 

This year, they will inevitably face a new opponent in the Championship game as the Stars and Maulers are no more. Could we see the Stallions play the Brahmas? A recap of a week 9 loss? Or the Battlehawks who they played for the first time in week 7 in Birmingham? 

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves given that the Stallions still need to defeat the Panthers to get there. The Panthers have never defeated the Stallions over the past three regular seasons. While it looked like the Stallions were on the ropes in Wheaton, they managed to squeeze out a one-point victory over the Panthers, extending the record to 4/0 over Michigan dating back to 2022. 

Playing for the first time in week six of 2022 the Stallions defeated Michigan 33-17 to move to 6-0. The second time they met was week six of the 2023 season. This game resulted in a 27-13 victory for the Stallions. Their first game this season wound up 20-13, and last week’s game was decided by just one point: a 20-19 victory for Birmingham. However the Stallions have never played the Panthers in the playoffs. Could Coach of the Year Mike Nolan do the unthinkable and unseat the Stallions? 

Keys to Victory for Birmingham

Stop the Run

The Panthers offense is dedicated to the run game and has been the only team other than Birmingham to rush for over 1,000 yards this season. Both the Stallions and Panthers rushed for over 1,250 yards in ten games while 8 other teams couldn’t cross the 1,000-yard mark. If you stop the run, you stop Michigan. 

Last week the Panthers rushed for 135 yards on 23 carries. They ran the ball with four different players splitting time at quarterback and running back. Bryce Perkins and Danny Etling combined for 7 carries for 73 yards and 1 touchdown. Due to injuries they were starting their third string back and spelling him with Toa Taua who they let go earlier this season. The two backs still found running room and added 16 carries for 62 yards. This week their leading rusher Matt Colburn is the RB2. This could create an even more potent punch in the run game this week. 

As you can tell where the Panthers do their damage is when using their quarterbacks in the run game. Three of the four quarterbacks that played for Michigan averaged 5.9 yards or more per carry. Together the quarterback room ran for 488 yards and 9 touchdowns. While their running backs are certainly talented it’s the quarterbacks that need to be the focus. Can the Stallions stop the quarterback run? 

Make Adrian Martinez Comfortable 

Last week was one of the worst performances of Adrian Martinez’s short UFL career. he managed the second-worst completion rate and one of his lowest average depth to target of the season per PFF.com. The receivers didn’t help dropping two passes, and Martinez had another batted down at the line by the defense. 

This defense was in the backfield early and often with 12 pressures, the second most A-Mart has faced this season. They were able to convert 5 of these pressures into sacks, amounting to the second-highest pressure-to-sack rates he has faced all season. In lamens terms: the Panther’s defense which features UFL Defensive Player of the Year Breeland Speaks, knows how to get to the quarterback. 

While you never want to be scared of any one player on a defense Speaks is a player you have to gameplan against. I expect that we will see a lot of Jordan Thomas in this game. Have him line up wherever Speaks is just to chip him and give the tackle an extra split second to get into position. While he hasn’t been used as a pass blocker much this season, it’s an underrated aspect of his game that he tends to excel at. Last season he graded out at 78.7, and this season he has graded 70. Thomas has played just 14 snaps against Michigan in two games, if he doesn’t play at least that many in this game I would be surprised. 

Another way I expect to see the offense try and neutralize the pass rush is by calling more screen passes and draws. Martinez has proven to be very comfortable throwing the screen pass this season completing 24 of 29 attempts. It has also helped get the ball out of Martinez’s hands faster cutting down on the necessary reads on that play, He was able to average 1.84 seconds per throw on screens. 

Run the Ball

The Stallions offense has lived and died by the run since they returned in 2022. Since their inception, they have rushed for 1,361 yards in 2022, 1,155 yards in 2023, and 1,347 yards in 2024. During that stretch, no other spring football team managed more rushing yards than Birmingham. 

This has also helped their quarterbacks tremendously by allowing them to use more play-action, which has helped Martinez be more efficient. Completing 78% of his passes for 407 yards for four touchdowns and no interceptions producing a 140.5 QBR. On 41 attempts and 32 completions, he managed 23 first downs (71.8% of his completions). 

A productive run game has directly correlated to success in the passing game all season long. The one loss the Stallions took all season long was to San Antonio. In that game, the Stallions didn’t run the ball with the same dedication they previously had. Running the ball just 31% of the time a stark contrast to their near 50% split outside of this game. Removing the San Antonio game, Birmingham passed the ball 259 times, running 250 good for 49.1%. Looking back you might be surprised to learn Birmingham led the league in rushing attempts but were second to last in pass attempts. Skip Holtz and company are masters of making the job easy for quarterbacks. 

How to Watch/Listen

The game will be broadcast on ABC, and the radio broadcast will again be on ESPN Xtra on SiriusXM. Kicking off Saturday, June 8th at 3:00 pm Eastern Time it will be 89 degrees at the time of kickoff. Birmingham again has home field advantage, although we can question how much of an advantage it will be after just over 7,000 fans showed up for last week’s game.

Luckily for Birmingham they have drawn crowds on television, and sometimes that is what matters the most for these teams. As long as fans are watching, the UFL can stomach some paltry attendance numbers this season. Let’s not discount that Mike Mitchell has mentioned the 3 year lease at Protective is up after this season, although I would imagine Protective, and the UFL will look to re-up this lease, if it hasn’t happened already.

Betting Odds/Predictions

The Stallions are 5-point favorites in this game. The money line for the Stallions is -255 while it is +205 for Michigan. The over/under is 43.5 points. If I was going to put money on this game I would bet on the Stallions covering the spread, and the over. I believe we see the Stallions win the game 27-20 with the Panthers holding the ball late in an attempt to win the game before a defensive stand by Birmingham stops them short.

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Sam Just

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