Stallions close out season with win over Tampa Bay Bandits, 21-18

USFL South Division champion Birmingham made its fifth and final fourth-down stop with less...
USFL South Division champion Birmingham made its fifth and final fourth-down stop with less than a minute remaining to secure a 21-18 victory over Tampa Bay on Saturday afternoon at Legion Field.(USFL Twitter)
Published: Jun. 18, 2022 at 7:49 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The following is a release from the USFL.

USFL South Division champion Birmingham made its fifth and final fourth-down stop with less than a minute remaining to secure a 21-18 victory over Tampa Bay on Saturday afternoon at Legion Field.

Birmingham backup quarterback Alex McGough threw for a team-high 183 yards, a touchdown and an interception after entering the game on the final snap of the first quarter. McGough also contributed on the ground, carrying the ball 11 times for 30 yards and a touchdown. Stallions’ running back CJ Marable paced all rushers with 47 yards rushing, averaging 5.9 yards per carry on eight attempts.

Despite allowing three scores in the second half, the Stallions limited Tampa Bay to just 68 yards rushing and held the Bandits to just 2-for-7 on fourth-down attempts. Birmingham cornerback Tae Hayes led the Stallions with six tackles, three pass breakups and an interception.

Tampa Bay starting quarterback Jordan Ta’amu paced the Bandits’ offense, completing 17-of-33 passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Five receivers recorded multiple catches, highlighted by wide receiver Derrick Dillion’s four catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.

After forcing a three-and-out to open the game, Birmingham’s offense took over inside its own 10-yard line following a 54-yard punt from Tampa Bay punter Brandon Wright. The Stallions advanced to their 42-yard line before outside linebacker T.J. Neal picked off starting quarterback J’Mar Smith’s pass, giving the Bandits plus field position at the Birmingham 44-yard line.

Birmingham’s defense allowed just one first down on the ensuing possession before turning the Bandits over on downs when defensive linemen Keyshon Camp and Johnny Newsome combined to sack Ta’amu for a 7-yard loss.

Despite a high snap on the following offensive play, Smith rolled to his right before finding a wide-open Sage Surratt for a 44-yard gain down the right sideline. Smith, however, fumbled just two plays later for Birmingham’s second turnover of the first quarter, setting up the Bandits at their 21-yard line. The Bandits again failed to turn a turnover into points, punting after another three-and-out.

The Stallions punted the ball right back to Tampa Bay following a three-and-out of their own, but the Bandits picked up just one first down before Wright booted his third punt of the game.

After 24 minutes of scoreless action to open the game, Birmingham capped off a 13-play, 90-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass from McGough to wide receiver Marlon Williams to make it 7-0 with 5:37 left in the first half. The Stallions converted three third downs on the scoring drive, including one inside the red zone.

Tampa Bay failed to pick up a first down on its ensuing offensive possession as Wright’s 63-yard punt sailed into the end zone for a touchback. Birmingham took over at its own 20-yard line with 3:42 remaining in the half and doubled its lead eight plays later when McGough plunged into the end zone from 17 yards out to make it 14-0 with 57 seconds remaining in the first half.

McGough cut to the left side of the line on the quarterback keeper before hurdling into the end zone for the Stallions’ second touchdown of the game. McGough completed all four of his passes on the scoring drive before his 17-yard rushing touchdown.

Tampa Bay drove to the Birmingham 37-yard line on its final drive of the first half, but four straight incompletions ended the Bandits’ drive. Birmingham outgained Tampa Bay 270-81 in the first half, converting 13 first downs compared to just four for the Bandits.

The Bandits snatched early momentum in the second half when linebacker Anthony Butler intercepted McGough’s pass at the Tampa Bay 48-yard line. Butler’s return traveled 18 yards to the Birmingham 34-yard line, but the Bandits failed to capitalize when linebacker Scooby Wright sacked backup quarterback Brady White on fourth-and-9 from the Stallions’ 33-yard line.

Following a Birmingham three-and-out, Tampa Bay got on the board when Ta’amu connected with Dillon for a 75-yard touchdown to trim the Bandits’ deficit to 14-6. Dillon juggled the ball before gathering it and sprinting down the right sideline for the score.

Fresh off its opening score, Tampa Bay opted for the alternate kickoff, which is a fourth-and-12 from its own 33-yard line. DeMarquis Gates sacked Ta’amu on the fourth-down attempt, giving the Stallions’ offense the ball at the Tampa Bay 18-yard line.

Birmingham and Tampa Bay traded turnovers on their next two offensive possessions, which included an interception in the end zone from Hayes. Just four plays after Hayes’ interception, Tampa Bay’s special teams brought the Bandits within two points when Rashard Davis returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-12 with 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Davis’ 74-yard return marked just the second punt-return touchdown of the season, joining New Jersey’s Kavontae Turpin as the two USFL players to return a punt for a score. Tampa Bay was unable to knot the game at 14-14 on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt when Ta’amu’s pass fell incomplete.

The Stallions answered Tampa Bay’s score on their next offensive possession, needing just five plays to travel 52 yards to extend Birmingham’s lead to 21-12 with 13:00 left in the fourth quarter. Marable carried the load on the swift scoring drive, ripping off a carry of 18 yards to open the drive before pushing his way into the end zone for a 12-yard rushing touchdown.

Tampa Bay scored its third touchdown of the second half on its next drive, capping off the 12-play, 68-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Ta’amu to tight end De’Quan Hampton. Hampton’s touchdown catch trimmed Tampa Bay’s deficit to 21-18 with 7:17 remaining. Despite a receiver breaking open in the right corner of the end zone on the ensuing three-point conversion attempt, Ta’amu couldn’t hit Dillion for the tying score as the receiver’s feet came down out of bounds.

The Stallions converted three third downs on their next offensive possession, churning 4:01 off the clock before the Bandits took over at their own 10-yard line with 3:06 remaining. Ta’amu drove the Bandits into Birmingham territory before his pass on fourh-and-11 at the Stallions’ 49-yard line fell incomplete with 38 seconds remaining. McGough then took a knee seal the victory for Birmingham.

“I’m really proud of what these players have been able to accomplish,” said Birmingham head coach Skip Holtz. “The joy of coaching in this league has been the relationships and getting to see these young men grow.

“One of our main goals at the beginning of the season was to win every game, but our main goal was to get to Canton. That’s where all the greats are. Some players have been there before, but for the guys who have not, it’ll be a special experience.”

Birmingham (9-1) will face New Orleans (6-3) on Saturday, June 25, in the South Division Championship game. The Stallions and Breakers will play next week’s game at 7 p.m. CST at Thom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

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