Trust between Alex McGough, Skip Holtz nets another win for Stallions

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Get you a man to hold it down for you like Hobie Brown does for Gwen Stacy and Miles Morales, a man who will give you the keys to the car with complete trust like Skip Holtz has done with Alex McGough.

In a thrilling finish to their first meeting since the USFL Championship Game, the Birmingham Stallions topped the Philadelphia Stars, 27-24, Saturday at Protective Stadium.

Looking right and then throwing left with fewer than 30 seconds left to play, McGough found tight end LaMichael Pettway like a purple-glowing Prowler in the corner of the end zone, beating the Stars’ cornerback Amani Dennis — the USFL’s leader in interceptions — for the game-winning TD pass.

McGough immediately rushed toward coach Skip Holtz and wrapped him in a full-body hug as if he’d just saved the multiverse from the ripping terror of Miguel O’Hara.

“The joy and excitement that was on his face when he ran over to me,” Holtz said, “that’s why I do this. That’s wonderful. That’s why I hope that kid gets a shot in the NFL, makes it, and plays for a long, long time. So then I can go sit on the sideline and go, ‘I remember when that son of a gun nearly ran me over me after making the last play to win the game.”

Highlights: McGough rallies Stallions past Stars

The performance McGough gave was worth the bodily harm his coach might have endured. Not only did he lead his team to a comeback win after being down 24-20 late in the fourth quarter, but he’d played well all Saturday afternoon.

McGough, a frontrunner to win the USFL MVP award, completed 24 of 35 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns — superhero web-slinger stuff.

Given the opportunity to talk to his teammates, to motivate them with a speech or a phrase, McGough opted for his enthusiasm and effort to relay just what needed to get done and how they were going to do it. 

Perhaps no player has come to personify the Stallions’ attitude, talent and humility more in 2023.

“I just always just give out my energy,” McGough said. “That is how I lead. I’m not a big talker. I go individually and just tell people I appreciate them. I’m giving you everything I got, and I just appreciate everybody else giving me everything they have. And I think that’s the only way you win.”

Holtz knew that about McGough because he’d already seen it — nearly eight years ago. In games few watched — and those who did probably forgot all about — Holtz’s Louisiana Tech squad beat McGough’s Florida International team 27-17 in 2015 and 44-24 in 2016.

Though the Ragin Cajuns won those games, Holtz remembered how good McGough played, completing 29 of 44 passes for 263 yards and two TDs in one game, and 25 of 44 for 281 yards and three TDs in the other.

“I remember I asked my [Louisiana. Tech] defensive coordinator if [McGough] could beat us throwing it. He said, ‘Coach I don’t think so.’ Then he threw for about 300 yards twice.

“So when this opportunity came around, we were looking at a lot of quarterbacks who were good. But we went and got him because I’d seen that son of a gun live, and he could sling it.”

Though he was Holtz’s first pick in the 2022 USFL Draft, McGough shared the quarterback job with former Louisiana Tech QB J’Mar Smith last season, even suiting up at wideout in the USFL title game.

But when Smith sustained a season-ending injury this spring, McGough became the unquestioned starter. Holtz began developing the athlete he’d seen at FIU into the quarterback who leads the team with the best record (6-2) in the USFL.

Sitting in Holtz’s offense for a year helped McGough tremendously. Not just because essentially got to redshirt last season, but because he’s been allowed to develop into a professional quarterback rather than a professional athlete playing quarterback.

“He’s reading it. He’s playing quarterback,” Holtz said. “He’s not just an athlete. He’s playing quarterback. He’s staying in the pocket to throw the ball. It’s not just run around and make plays now.”

McGough proved that against the Stars (4-4), who sit atop the North Division, in how he beat the defense of Philly coach Bart Andrus.

“Our No. 1 objective was to keep McGough in the pocket,” Andrus said.

And they mostly did. McGough rushed just five times for 19 yards, but it was his ability to extend plays that would lead to first downs and explosive plays.

“If anybody lets him extend the play, they’re gonna pay,” Andrus said. “And we did.”

The Stars won the turnover battle 2-1, recovering fumbles inside their own red zone. The offense put up 329 yards and got a 107-yard receiving performance from former first-round pick and Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman. They held the lead at halftime and with less than four minutes to play.

It’s the kind of game that most teams think they might win. But the Stars have fallen short in back-to-back games against Birmingham by just six total points, as both look to reach the USFL title game for the second-straight season.

If the Stars do get there, it’s possible they’ll have to contend with McGough, who has not only found his rhythm but gained the trust of one of the league’s best offensive minds and one of the sports’ great quarterback developers.

On the sideline, during games, you can hear Holtz asking McGough: “What play do you like? What do you feel confident running?”

Holtz, who coordinated Notre Dame to a share of the 1993 national championship, told me being mindful of what his quarterback likes in-game is new for him.

“I would say new because he’s in it,” Holtz told me. “I think it’s not what I call. It’s what he feels that he can execute.

“At practice a couple of times here in the last couple of weeks, I’ll call a play and he’ll bend over. When he bends over, I can see he’s thinking the play through in his head, because he’s got to have the picture of what’s going on. If he can’t see it, I’m not gonna call it. So my job is to make damn sure that he feels good about whatever we’re running. And I think I’m better off calling a play that he’s comfortable with than I am just to play to attack the defense.”

On fourth-and-8 with 46 seconds left to play, McGough knew his coach was feeling it. Even when Holtz asked him what he’d like to run, McGough doubled down on his faith in Holtz’s ability to call a play they could win with.

A dropped pass? A sack? An interception? The game is over. McGough didn’t flinch.

“You call it,” McGough said. “We’ll make it work

Holtz gave McGough the play and then asked once more, “You’re comfortable with it?”

“Yeah. Good.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m good.”

When McGough found tight end Jace Sternberger open past the sticks for a 13-yard gain — the game’s only fourth-down conversion — Holtz stopped just long enough to smile and then look at his play card, setting up what would be the game-winning drive just two plays later.

“I think he trusts me,” Holtz said. “I trust him explicitly.”

Right then, right there, Holtz illustrated how to develop a professional quarterback.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The Number One College Football Show” on YouTube.

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