USFL playoffs: ‘Special’ night for Skip Holtz as Stallions reach final

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

CANTON, Ohio — As Birmingham Stallions Coach Skip Holtz came down the elevator, quietly listening to the words of his father Lou Holtz.

Lou underwent back surgery earlier this year, and the procedure prevented him from traveling to Birmingham to watch his son coach the Stallions. That changed on Saturday.

With the help of friends, Lou was at the Tom Benson Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium to see his son coach as a pro – and win.

Stallions and trainer Skip Holtz celebrate their title match

The Birmingham Stallions beat the New Orleans Breakers in the USFL playoffs and gave coach Skip Holtz a bath of Gatorade after advancing to the championship game.

“It was special,” Skip Holtz said. “And that didn’t happen very often because I was coaching when he was obviously coaching, but it was special for my dad and my mentor, a man I have huge respect for. [to be here].”

In what ended up being an insurance touchdown, the Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith rushed into the end zone to cement a Victory 31-17 above New Orleans thugs to send Holtz’s team to the inauguration United States Soccer League Championship game next Sunday.

In Tom Benson’s media room, as midnight local time approached, Smith was still overwhelmed with emotion that he and the Stallions were staying on to play for another week.

“I’m just very happy for Coach Holtz,” he said, holding back tears. “I owe him a championship.”

Smith went 17 of 27 for 190 passing yards with two total touchdowns as the Stallions played the brand of football that helped them start the season 9-0 before suffering their first loss. They started slow but took care of the football, while getting timely plays on defense and special teams.

The win reflects the professional, steel-driving image the Stallions have created for themselves in Birmingham, Alabama, a city as renowned for its once-thriving railroad industry as it is for the quality of football played there.

Now the stallions will face the Philadelphia Stars at the Tom Benson Pro Football Hall of Fame Stadium on July 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

Related: All About Stars-Stallions

While Saturday night’s game ended with a 14-point margin, it didn’t always look like the Stallions would pull away from Larry Fedora’s Breakers.

After Smith drops the snap on the opening player, the kicker Brandon Aubrey was forced to attempt a long basket. He missed it.

The Breakers took advantage of the break in serve and marched down the court with their trademark, fast-paced attack.

Breakers offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone kept the quarterback Kyle Sloter make short, easy throws to start, with a mix of running back Jordan Ellis to unbalance the Birmingham defense of John Chavis. This mix led to New Orleans scoring first when Ellis entered the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

Smith and the passing offense found a spark heading into the second quarter when New Orleans defensive coordinator John Tenuta opted to cover the man at the back, and Smith beat him with old fashioned throw Mississippi State wide Osiris Mitchell to help level the score at 7-7 with 14:55 to go in the half.

Through the door(s)

After Sloter made the decision to throw the ball while tagged, the linebacker DeMarquis “The Dentist” Gates waited for what felt like a full quarter for the ball to drop into his hands. He rolled back from end to end, got up and hitched his cart to a convoy pulled by Stallions defenders as he galloped towards the end zone, finishing his pick of six just at side of the Pro Football Hall of Fame – with his dental floss between his teeth.

Gates was then the first player to Ole Miss to score 100 tackles in a season since Patrick Willis, to be their first All-USFL player as one of the league’s top linebackers.

DeMarquis Gates takes the interception home

Birmingham linebacker DeMaquis Gates takes Kyle Sloter’s interception for a Stallions touchdown.

Sloter, Cannella hold on

Sloter would throw another INT — giving him 13 in 11 weeks — but completed 22 of 40 for 327 passing yards and a TD as well. Not bad for a player Fedora didn’t even think was capable of physically playing against the Stallions.

Sloter played most of the season with a strained groin that limited his mobility.

“For Kyle to even play this game, we really didn’t expect that,” Fedora said. “We didn’t. So he gave us a chance. He’s a badass. He made it. He was a warrior.”

Tight end of circuit breakers Salt Cinnamon caught 12 passes for a single-game receiving record of 154 yards and is believed to be one of the few players who will receive an invite has a NFL training camp later this summer.

The Sloter pick-six launched, however, and the heroics of the Birmingham dynamo Victor Boldé proved too much for the Breakers to overcome.

Related: Eight postseason players on the NFL’s radar

Bolden fired him

After the Breakers tied the game at 14-14 on a dynamic fourth-and-4, Bolden showed why he was the first receiver selected in the USFL’s inaugural draft, and why Holtz described him as a man who was “three in the first round picks up a guy.”

Bolden brought the Breakers kickoff home for the first special teams TD of the game, and the third TD special teams of the day. It was also the longest return kick of the day at 90 yards, giving the Stallions a 21-14 lead.

Victor Bolden Jr. goes 90 yards for a touchdown

Birmingham’s Victor Bolden Jr. has become the first player to return a kickoff for a touchdown this season.

“He deserves about 50 touches a game with the way he plays the game,” Holtz said.

The score came so quickly that Sloter and the New Orleans offense had another scoring opportunity with 47 seconds left in the half.

But after a promising drive start, in which Sloter connected with Anthony Jones for a 30-yard gain, he came out of a timeout and threw his second interception in as many quarters.

The Breakers channeled their inner stallion in the third quarter when they absolutely exploited a 17-play 74-yard drive that ate 9:10 of the third quarter and came away with three points, cutting the deficit to the regular season champions of the South Division at 21-17.

The Stallions responded with their own placement to reclaim their seven-man lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game. Birmingham continued to eat the clock in the fourth quarter, however, ending up chewing every time the Breakers could have gone for two touchdowns, even though they had the option of using the fourth-and-12 option instead of a kick in play if they scored.

“We called the game to get first downs,” Holtz said.

Birmingham ate 88 yards on 15 plays while using 7:45 of the fourth quarter to do so. By the time the New Orleans defense rolled off the field, the Breakers offense had just 39 seconds left to play its final shots in the Hall of Fame’s shadow.

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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