USFL: Michigan Panthers (1-4) vs. Birmingham Stallions (5-0)
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama.
Line: Stallions -6.5
Game notes: There are just five weeks left in the USFL’s 10-week schedule, meaning the playoffs in Canton, Ohio — which will take the top two teams from each division — are looming. The Panthers are on the outside looking in, at third in the North Division, but only one game back of the Philadelphia Stars. And by point differential, the Panthers are plus-7, one of four teams with a positive differential. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they’re facing the team with the best point differential, the Stallions at plus-37.
Birmingham leads the league in scoring, with 129 points, thanks to quarterback J’Mar Smith’s connection with receivers Victor Bolden Jr. and Marlon Williams. Smith is 63-for-111 (56.8%) passing for 784 yards and six touchdowns, while Bolden has 29 receptions for 259 yards and a touchdown and Williams has 11 catches for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
The Panthers’ passing game finally broke through in last week’s loss to Tampa Bay, as former Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson completed 27 of 34 passes for 304 yards, a touchdown and an interception. That also doesn’t include a 30-yard pass from wide receiver Joe Walker to tight end Ryan O’Malley for a touchdown, after Walker caught a forward pass from Patterson behind the line for the first double-pass in USFL history.
But the Stallions present a tough challenge on defense, led by linebacker DeMarquis Gates (formerly of Ole Miss). Gates was named USFL Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season after dominating the Stars with four tackles, including one for loss and 1½ sacks. He’ll enter Saturday’s game with 31 tackles and four sacks, good for third in the league.
After they’re done with the Stallions, the Panthers will wrap up their games against the South Division against the New Orleans Breakers at 9 p.m. May 28 (FS1). Michigan will then finish the season with three straight against its North Division rivals. Likewise, the Stallions take on the Pittsburgh Maulers on May 29, then face their South rivals to finish out the regular season.
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