By RJ Young
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama— Birmingham Stallions strategist J’Mar Smith hasn’t lost a game he’s played in since November 2019, but that winning streak hasn’t been easy. In fact, it took a certain amount of heroism on the part of the elders Louisiana Technology signal-caller.
For the second time in as many weeks, Smith did just that, leading the Stallions to a 33-28 win over the Houston Gamblers on Saturday night in front of their hometown crowd in the Double Down Derby.
USFL highlights: Birmingham Stallions go 2-0
The Birmingham Stallions beat the Houston Gamblers, 33-28, in the highest-scoring game of the season. It also included the longest touchdown of the season when J’Mar Smith connected with Marlon Williams for a 65-yard touchdown.
The Stallions remain undefeated and top of the South Division standings (2-0, 1-0). They will be tied with the winner of Sunday’s contest between their division rivals – the New Orleans Breakers and the Tampa Bay Bandits.
Smith needed a few sets to find his groove when he replaced injured Alex McGough against the New Jersey Generals in Week 1, and he started slowly again Saturday night.
In the first half, the Stallions called 18 passing plays and came away with 60 yards for their effort. Smith, who hasn’t played in a game since the last time he led La. Tech to a win over Miami in the 2019 Independence Bowl, said he’s still getting back into shape.
“My fundamentals are out of whack,” Smith said. “I just have to get back to work this week.”
He threw for 214 yards, going 19 of 29 with two touchdowns and one interception. But 108 of those yards came on his two touchdown passes.
Osirus Mitchell ends the touchdown with a bold celebration
After catching a touchdown pass from J’Mar Smith, Osirus Mitchell fired a penalty for his celebration.
One of those came on a fade to 6-foot-5 Osirus Mitchell, which the former Mississippi State wide receiver rode and got for his second 34-yard touchdown connection in as many weeks. .
With the extra point, the Stallions took a 19-18 lead with 13:26 left in the third quarter. After forcing Houston to a three-and-out, Birmingham beat the Gamblers in the next series.
Behind an offensive line that found Houston’s first seven mobile for the first time all night, the Stallions rushed for 78 yards in 11 plays — including seven points — to take a 26-18 lead with a rushing TD. former Coastal Carolina star CJ Marable with 5:33 left in the third quarter.
Marable finished the night with 76 yards on 16 carries to lead the Stallions, who were left with 169 rushing yards after running the ball just 12 times in the first half.
“Actually,” Stallions coach Skip Holtz said, “I came out in the second half and said we’re going to start running the ball. I’m going to try to slow the game down.”
The Gamblers cut the lead to 26-21 late in the third quarter, but the Stallions pulled back.
J’Mar Smith joins Marlon Williams for a 65-yard touchdown
Birmingham Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith joins Marlon Williams for a 65-yard touchdown pass through midfield.
Smith again hit a big pass, this time finding a serial Marlon Williams for a 65-yard touchdown pass to extend Birmingham’s lead to 33-21 with 12:55 remaining. Williams, who recorded his first catch against the Gamblers, finished the night with 89 receiving yards.
Thorson up and down like the Gamblers
Gamblers quarterback Clayton Thorson, meanwhile, personified the Gamblers’ back-to-back struggles. One of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Northwest history, Thorson made both heroic plays and some he’d like to play back, going 13 of 27 for 141 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Among the good guys: Thorson made a play from scratch, dodging a sack, rushing to his left and finding the wide Tyler Simmons for a late 44-yard score – a play that brought the Gamblers within five and a created the highest scoring game in USFL history.
Among the bad: He made two throws that felt rushed, forced and out of control. One was a pass that killed a last-minute player when he was knocked down and intercepted with 1:01 left.
The defenses came to play
The first two touchdowns of the game came on explosive defensive plays.
Early in the first quarter, Stallions cornerback Brian Allen picked off Thorson and sent him 48 yards into the end zone.
Birmingham and Houston intercept for touchdowns
The Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers each picked up a first-quarter six pick on Saturday night.
Minutes later, Gamblers defensive back Will Likely picked off Smith and sent him back 62 yards for a touchdown. The nickel back also added six tackles and a forced fumble, and he even returned kicks and punts for the Gamblers.
“Will tells me every week that he wants to play offensively,” Gamblers coach Kevin Sumlin said.
If he keeps catching passes like this, he might get his wish.
Each defense acquitted itself well, responsible for a total of 12 of the 53 points scored. They also accounted for five total turnovers – including four interceptions.
For the second game in a row, Gamblers linebacker Donald Payne had a record 15 tackles, giving him 33 in two games. Former Tulsa star Manny Bunch had 12 tackles.
Stallions linebacker Nate Holley recorded 11 tackles and Demarquis “The Dentist” Gates had nine, including a sack.
Gates, who joined Smith and Holtz at the postgame press conference, donned aviator sunglasses and a choice of dental floss after the session ended.
A kicker who can kick?
Stallion kicker Brandon Aubrey had never played football until April 16, having played football at Notre Dame and later Major League Soccer.
In only his second game as a Birmingham specialist, he stopped former Pac-12 standout returner Victor Bolden to return a kick home, dropping his head to make the first tackle of his life.
After the first “real” football game of his career, FOX Sports’ Brock Huard asked Aubrey how he made the game.
“I just passed out and put my head down,” he said.
Holtz said he didn’t know what he had in Aubrey and that he loved her that way.
“I learned to leave the specialists alone,” Holtz said. “And I’ve learned not to coach them too much. Don’t get in their head. Specialists are unique. And I said that last week, I don’t know what we have right now. In Brandon , I don’t know “. But I watch them throw those field goals and watch him score those extra points, watch him drop and make a tackle. I think he’s a guy I have to keep leaving alone. That’s my mindset at the start. I I will stay back.”
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The #1 Rated Show Starring RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Youngand subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. It’s not on a StepMill.
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