If you just looked at stats, you would think that the New Orleans Breakers beat the Birmingham Stallions on Saturday night. New Orleans outgained the Stallons 389-289 and the time of possession battle was just about equal. The difference according to Breakers’ head coach Larry Fedora? Two turnovers and a kick return touchdown. Fedora said, “It doesn’t get any simpler than that. We made more mistakes than they did and they came out on top.”
Birmingham defeated New Orleans for the third time this season 31-17. The ultimate difference was a pick-six by DeMarquis Gates and a kickoff return touchdown by All-USFL receiver Victor Bolden Jr. The Stallions’ defense allowed the Breakers to pile up the yardage, but big plays by the secondary kept them from piling up the points. The Stallions only allowed three points in the second half and none in the crucial fourth quarter.
J’Mar Smith came out and out-dueled Kyle Sloter on the biggest stage. Smith was methodical all night and made plays in every facet of the game. Birmingham was methodical in holding off the relentless Breakers’ attack. The Stallions did this on the strength of three 10+ play scoring drives, timely passing from Smith, and some old-fashioned wing-t rushing plays.
Birmingham Stallions take down New Orleans Breakers
The first quarter was a 7-0 methodical affair and then the Breakers ran wild for 21 points in the second quarter to take a 21-14 lead into halftime. After an absolutely electric conclusion to the first half, many expected the track meet to continue, but both defenses stood firm when it mattered. New Orleans and Birmingham traded field goals to keep the seven-point differential.
The Stallions’ secondary were the heroes today. They flew all over the field intercepting passes, breaking up passes, and preventing this Breakers’ offense from putting up points in bunches. Tae Hayes had three pass defenses to go along with an interception. DeMarquis Gates also got in on the action with a pass defended and an interception return for a touchdown. Sloter put up yards all day, but the Birmingham secondary made him work for it.
Sloter and the Breakers come out Swinging
Kyle Sloter shook off any doubts about his readiness for today’s game as he came out and masterfully orchestrated an opening touchdown drive. Sloter showcased the arm, mobility, and playmaking abilities that make him an NFL-level talent. Taiwan Taylor made a huge one-handed catch for a big gain to get the Breakers deep into Stallions’ territory to set up a Jordan Ellis touchdown.
Ellis took the toss from Sloter and bounced it to the outside, slipping by two defenders in the process, to score from one yard out. The point after was good and the Breakers were up 7-0 early.
Stallions Respond through the Air
J’Mar Smith was not about to be outdone by Sloter though. Smith took the field and methodically worked the Stallions’ offense down the field mixing in shots down the field to Osirus Mitchell and Marlon Williams with rushes and swing passes to Bo Scarbrough. Mitchell and Williams have been a force all season. Both of them finished in the top five in receiving yards for the season in the USFL.
One play after Smith misfired to Williams, he connected with Osirus Mitchell on a touch pass in the endzone to level the score at 7-7.
Mistakes and Miscues put New Orleans in a Hole
Sloter and the Breakers looked poised to respond as they drove into Birmingham territory, but they were promptly derailed by an ill-advised pass by Sloter. DeMarquis Gates capitalized on that mistake and intercepted the errant pass. He then weaved his way through traffic on his way to a 71-yard touchdown return to put Birmingham up 14-7 after the extra point by Brandon Aubrey.
In need of a big response, the Breakers were unable to get anything going on the ensuing drive. Despite a big-time catch and run by Jordan Ellis on third down they were unable to convert the third and 19. New Orleans had been setback by Jonathan Adams taking a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on second down that pushed them back.
Breakers Dodge Disaster
After containing the Stallions’ offense and forcing a punt, the Breakers took over deep in their own end. Sloter and the Breakers’ offense appeared to be spinning their wheels as a penalty backed them up for a third and 12 from their own 10. However, All-USFL tight end Sal Cannella found an opening and rumbled for a first down. Near disaster struck though as Cannella lost control of the ball and fumbled, but mid-year addition Anthony Jones was there to recover and avert disaster for New Orleans.
Sloter connected with Cannella twice more and Adams once to move New Orleans into Birmingham territory before the drive stalled at the Stallions’ 35. After initially trotting out Taylor Bertolet to attempt a 52-yard field goal New Orleans elected to go for it on fourth and four. Jordan Ellis rewarded the risky call by Larry Fedora by dodging several tacklers and carrying another into the endzone from 35 yards out to even the score at 14-14 with 1:06 remaining in the first half.
Bolden Turns it Into a Barn Burner
After the earlier semifinal game saw two punt return touchdowns, First Team All-USFL wide receiver and special teamer Victor Bolden decided it was his turn to get showcase his skills. He fielded the kickoff by Bertolet at his own 10-yard line and promptly turned on the jets. Bolden was out across the 50-yard line before anyone could think twice and slipped by the final line of defenders shortly afterward on his way to a 90-yard kickoff return touchdown. The USFL had not had a kickoff returned for a touchdown all season and Bolden picked a great time to take one to the house and put the Stallions up 21-14.
More Turnovers by NOLA
The Breakers’ offense came out with a purpose and looked poised to answer. Anthony Jones took a short pass and turned it upfield for a 30-yard gain into Birmingham territory. Working from the Birmingham 33-yard line with 38 seconds on the clock and two timeouts, New Orleans was poised to cut down the Birmingham lead. However, Sloter made another mistake and threw his second interception of the night. He was trying to hit Tawan Taylor on a quick route, but Tae Hayes broke on the route and picked it off.
New Orleans avoided any major damage on the scoreboard though as J’Mar Smith and Victor Bolden struggled to connect on consecutive passing plays before a final Hail Mary was thrown out the back of the endzone and kept the score at 21-14 in favor of the Stallions.
Breakers Chew Up Clock, but Only get Three Points
Starting the second half, New Orleans began a methodical march down the field. Starting their drive with a steady dose of rushes by Jones they made it to midfield. Then it was time for Kyle Sloter and the passing attack to take control. Sloter hit Cannella for 19 yards, then Dixon for 23, and Cannella again for 13 yards to get to the Stallions’ doorstep.
However, with three chances from the Birmingham 5-yard line, Sloter and company could not get into the endzone and had to settle for a Bertolet 23-yard field goal to cut the Stallions’ lead to 21-17. New Orleans did manage to eat up 10:25 of clock time on the methodical 17-play drive but was disappointed to only come away with three points.
Stallions Grind Down the Clock but Settle for Three
Birmingham got the ball at their own 25 after a Bertolet touchback and methodically worked their way down the field. Utilizing a run-heavy approach they ran the ball nine times against just three passes before their drive stalled out at the New Orleans’ 20-yard line. Brandon Aubrey made his 38-yard attempt to put Birmingham up a touchdown 24-17 with 12:07 left in the fourth quarter.
Breakers Stall Out
Trailing by seven with 12:07 remaining, Sloter and the Breakers’ offense had to go to work and they had some success starting to move the ball through the air. Sloter was closing in on a 300-yard game on this drive, but he had two interceptions to only one touchdown. Despite Sal Cannella breaking 100 yards on this drive, it stalled out around midfield. New Orleans punter Matt White was able to pin the Stallions at their own 13-yard line though.
J’Mar Smith Clinches the Win
J’Mar Smith came out after the punt ready to take over. After a Scarbrough run, Smith took over and completed three quick-strike passes to move Birmingham from their own end to midfield. He then made two big plays with his legs and had the Stallions knocking on the door. It was then time for Bo Scarbrough to go to work grinding down the clock inside the Breakers’ ten-yard line before J’Mar Smith pushed his way into the endzone from the two-yard line.
Smith was masterful on the clinching 15-play drive. He was 5/5 for 58 yards through the air and added 24 yards on the ground, including the game-sealing two-yard touchdown run.
One silver lining for Breakers on their last possession of the game was that Sal Cannella set the USFL single-game receiving record with his 12-catch, 154-yard performance.
What They’re Saying
Larry Fedora – Head Coach New Orleans Breakers
Fedora on what the difference in the game was, “They made fewer mistakes than we did and that’s why they came out on top. Have to give them credit for the flawless game that they played.”
When Fedora was asked about Cannella’s performance he said, “I would imagine Sal will have a chance to play beyond this. Tonight was special with the things he did tonight. He’s a matchup problem for people.”
Skip Holtz – Head Coach Birmingham Stallions
During his opening statement, Holtz said, “this is an unbelievable experience for me. Just to have the opportunity to be around and coach these young men. How they play and leave it all out there on the field.”
Holtz elaborated on the fourth quarter performance, “We called the game, we called fourth quarter to move methodically. We called the game to get first downs and move the ball down the field.”
J’Mar Smith – Quarterback Birmingham Stallions
On his near-perfect fourth quarter performance, J’Mar said, “They [the coaches] made life easy with the reads that they gave me. Great blocking, great scheme calls. That feels pretty good to hear eight-minute offense. To hold the ball that long and score like that feels pretty good.”
When asked about his relationship with Coach Holtz Smith said, “It’s been a long journey with Coach Holtz. Been with him since 2014, and I owe him a lot more. I owe him a championship.”
Three Who Made an Impact
This game seemed like it could turn into a track meet during the second quarter with players on both teams showcasing their game-breaking abilities on both sides of the ball. Victor Bolden made USFL history with a long kickoff return touchdown. DeMarquis Gates took an early interception to the house on a pick-six.
Adrian Hardy and Osirus Mitchell both had spectacular days turning quick-hit routes into solid gains. Meanwhile, Jordan Ellis showcased his elusiveness with run-after-the-catch ability on his 35-yard touchdown catch and run.
Tae Hayes (DB) Birmingham Stallions
Hayes was a key part of the Stallions’ efforts to disrupt Sloter and the Breakers. Sloter was named to the All-USLF team as the only quarterback and put up gaudy yardage numbers again today. However, the Breakers were unable to parlay those yards into points thanks to Hayes and his fellow members of the secondary. Hayes finished the day with five total tackles, three passes defended, and one interception. He was tenacious in coverage all day and helped to contain a potential lethal Breakers’ passing attack.
J’Mar Smith (QB) Birmingham Stallions
J’Mar was a man on a mission tonight. He skillfully orchestrated three 10+ play scoring drives and guided the Stallions’ offense masterfully. Birmingham had no turnovers and managed to grind down the clock whenever they needed. His special teams and defense picked him up with two touchdowns, but Smith played just as big a role in this game. Throwing for 190 yards, one touchdown, and rushing for another 48 yards, Smith was critical to the Stallions’ success. He put his team in a position to be successful and made sure to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
Sal Cannella (TE) New Orleans Breakers
Cannella has been a breakout star for New Orleans this season. He was consistently a safety blanket for Sloter and whoever else was at quarterback for New Orleans. During the regular season he put up 368 receiving yards and tonight he put together a record-setting day with 12 catches for 154 yards for the Breakers. With so much of modern football revolving around a dynamic, pass-catching tight end, Cannella should land himself a look on an NFL roster sooner rather than later.