Jun. 26—CANTON — The Birmingham Stallions have been the stallions of the USFL all season, and on a beautiful June 25 night they stampeded the New Orleans Breakers, 31-17, to gallop into the league's championship game against the Philadelphia Stars.
Fans who spent the day at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in the shadow of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where 17 Browns are enshrined, were treated to a football feast and a between-games concert by country music star Trace Atkins.
The sun was scorching in the first game when the Stars eliminated the New Jersey Generals, 19-14. An on-field thermometer set up near a down marker registered 110 degrees.
Temperatures mellowed as the sun set during the second game, but the action on the field stayed hot.
Concession lines were not long because the stands weren't packed for the nightcap, but anyone who did leave his or her seat for a beer, hot dog or rest room break in the final minutes of the first half missed a titanic shift in momentum.
Philadelphia Stars shock Generals, 19-14, in USFL semifinal
Breakers coach Larry Fedora decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Birmingham 35 with his team trailing, 14-7, with 1:15 remaining in the second quarter. There was no guarantee his kicker would make a 53-yard field goal. Besides, it takes touchdowns, not field goals, to beat the Stallions.
New Orleans quarterback Kyle Sloter threw a short pass about five yards to running back Jordan Ellis. Ellis broke a tackle for the first down, dashed toward the right sideline and scampered into the end zone. Taylor Bertalet kicked the extra point to tie the score.
Joy on the New Orleans sideline! Wait a second: Sagging shoulders on the New Orleans sideline.
Kickoffs in the USFL are from the 25, almost assuring a return every time. Sure enough, the always dangerous Victor Bolden Jr. returned Bertalet's kick 90 yards for a touchdown to put Birmingham back on top, 21-14, at halftime.
The Breakers, undaunted by the setback, took the third-quarter kickoff and shaved more than 10 minutes off the clock — 10:25 to be exact — as they slogged their way to the Birmingham 5 before the drive fizzled. This time Fedora took the safe route, and Bertalet connected to make it a 21-17 game.
The Stallions answered with a field goal of their own with 12:04 left in the fourth quarter to boost their lead back to seven at 24-17.
Fans were into it, and just to make sure those that weren't cheering stayed awake, the P.A. operator let loose with some mind-numbing music to inspire fans to make a dance-cam appearance on the end zone video boards. For those not inclined to dance, the ever-popular air guitar cam really got the gang going.
PHOTOS: Stallions vs. Breakers USFL semifinal, June 25, 2022
No matter what else happens, when a fan gets to perform on the video board for all to see — the sillier the better — the day or night is a success.
But back to the game. Birmingham forced the Breakers to punt, and when the Stallions got the ball back inside their 15 with 8:24 remaining they had two missions: protect the 24-17 lead and bleed the clock. The Wild Horses did both, and with 39 seconds to play, Birmingham quarterback J'Mar Smith wedged his way into the end zone from the 2 to punch the Stallions ticket to the championship game with the Stars on July 3 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
Good seats are still available.