CANTON — A big moment arrived for Maurice Alexander on Saturday. The Philadelphia Stars punt returner didn't miss taking advantage of it.
Alexander got loose for an 87-yard punt return touchdown in the final two minutes of the USFL semifinal at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium to lift the Stars to the league title game. His TD gave the Stars a 19-14 win over the favored New Jersey Generals.
The Birmingham Stallions defeated the New Orleans Breakers 31-17 in the other semifinal on Saturday, setting up a Stars-Stallion championship game July 3 at Benson Stadium.
Alexander's TD was the first punt return touchdown of the season for the Stars.
"I think he has the opportunity to run it back every time he touches the ball. He's shown that all year long," Stars head coach Bart Andrus said.
Alexander was named player of the game. The All-USFL player considered the playoff win to be the biggest moment in his football career.
"By far. At this stage with these guys on national television, having it at the moment that it happened, and hoping to take the trophy home next week, it's by far the biggest moment," Alexander said.
The Generals beat the Stars a week ago to wrap up a 9-1 regular season. The Stars entered the game 6-4.
In the first half, despite having offensive numbers and moving the chains, the Generals couldn't find the end zone. The Stars made some key defensive stops, including an interception by Mazzi Wilkins which led to the Stars' first TD of the day on quarterback Case Cookus's short run.
"I think what they did up front was they started the game with pressure," Generals coach Mike Riley said. "They started off coming off the edge and blitzing, and mixing in with that later on when the game took to strength and they mix in two-deep coverage that was not there in the last game. They saved some stuff and situationally called some stuff that was good for them."
The Generals were finally on the board in the third quarter led on a short run by Darius Victor, following an interception thrown by Cookus. The Stars QB took a vicious hit after throwing the pick, which sidelined him briefly before he returned late in the fourth quarter. Cookus completed 50% of his passes for 133 yards and added 39 yards on the ground.
"Anytime you come back into a football game, you have to stay positive and ahead of the chains and we did a good job of that today," Cookus said.
KaVontae Turpin, the league's offensive player of the year, was a non-factor on offense with only 20 yards on three catches. However, he changed the momentum on special teams when he returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown to give the Generals their first lead, 14-13 with five minutes into the fourth quarter.
After Alexander's late punt return touchdown for the Stars gave them back the lead for good, Amani Dennis closed the deal with an interception.
Luis Perez threw for 191 yards and two interceptions for the Genderals. Victor added 64 yards rushing, and had five catches for 91 yards.
Riley reflected on his team's USFL experience after having a one-loss regular season and winning the North Division.
"The league was truly a blast. We just go day-to-day, get a roadblock and they adjust and make things happen, make it happen," Riley said. "It was well done and I look forward the opportunity to do it next year."
Stallions shut down Breakers in second half
Birmingham Stallions coach Skip Holtz was not thrilled with Gatorade being dumped on him, but he will make an exception on Saturday night.
The Stallions scored in three different phases to beat the Breakers 31-17 in the second semifinal.
The Breakers got off to a good start with a 1-yard run by Jordan Ellis to open the scoring. The Stallions evened the score with a 23-yard TD connection by J'Mar Smith to Osiris Mitchell.
Breakers QB Kyle Sloter, who threw for 327 yards, had two interceptions in the first half, including a pick-six in the second quarter to give Birmingham a 14-7 lead. Sloter tied the game up, though, by connecting with Ellis on a 35-yard TD pass.
"They made the plays when they had the opportunity and we didn't," Breakers coach Larry Fedora said.
Sal Cannella had a productive night for the Breakers. His 154-yard performance broke the league's record for most receiving yards in a game.
"Sal is a great player. I would imagine that Sal is going to have a chance to play beyond this," Fedora said. "Sal has done it all year, but tonight it was kind of special with the things he did."
Seconds later, Victor Bolden Jr. took off on a kickoff return touchdown for the Stallions to end the half with a 21-14 lead. Bolden was named player of the game after producing 166 kickoff return yards.
"I think Victor is a special player as a returner, but he's a real special player and I have to do a better job giving him the ball more offensively," Holtz said.
The Breakers were held to just three points in the second half. Smith clinched the victory for the Stallions with a short run with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Holtz went into his father, Lou's, old playbook and ran the football more in the final stretch of the fourth quarter, including a run out of the old T formation that led to a late touchdown from Smith. Smith threw for 190 yards and added 48 yards on the ground.
"That final drive was a thing of beauty," Holtz said. "It was beautiful. People think T-boning ain't sexy but it's successful dang it. It works."
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Birmingham Stallions, Philadelphia Stars win USFL semifinals