BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- This was supposed to be a new Birmingham team, nothing like the one the Baltimore Stallions blew out in an exhibition game five weeks ago.
Last night at Legion Field, the expansion Barracudas faced Baltimore in a battle for supremacy in the Canadian Football League's Southern Division, and the Stallions brushed Birmingham aside with ease once more, 36-8, before 30,729.
The victory, Baltimore's fourth straight, gave the Stallions (4-1) sole possession of first place for the first time this season.
Birmingham (3-2) certainly has improved since its unsettled preseason, which concluded with a 37-0 loss to Baltimore. But the Stallions apparently have improved more.
Despite the return of quarterback Matt Dunigan -- who missed the preseason with a finger injury and had returned to lead Birmingham to two straight victories before last night -- the Stallions had little difficulty, even on a night when plenty went wrong with them.
Quarterback Tracy Ham left the game midway through the third quarter after taking a hit to the temple, but not before he had thrown three first-half touchdown passes -- two to slotback Chris Armstrong -- to lead the Stallions to a commanding 27-8 halftime lead.
Just before Ham walked off the field and gave way to quarterback Shawn Jones, the Stallions lost rush end Elfrid Payton to an ejection, after he got into a fight after a Baltimore punt return.
That didn't stop the Stallions' defense from dominating. Except for a brief, second-quarter flurry, the Barracudas' run-and-shoot offense could not muster much of an attack. The Barracudas' highlight came when Dunigan connected with Delius Morris for a 28-yard touchdown that cut Baltimore's lead to 20-8 with 4:09 left in the half.
After that, Baltimore shut down the Barracudas, who went scoreless in the second half, recorded only 10 first downs and managed only 150 net yards, including a mere 11 yards rushing. Birmingham punted 12 times.
"To keep them to eight points, with Dunigan in there, the defense did a spectacular job," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "Our coaches did a great job putting together a great game plan. The defense was the story."
The Stallions made several adjustments to counter Birmingham's five-receiver set. They activated cornerback Corris Ervin on Friday, giving them six defensive backs. They committed to a defensive package predicated on man-to-man coverage in the backfield and constant pressure on Dunigan up front. They also moved middle linebacker O. J. Brigance back to end, his spot last year.
The result was overwhelming success. Baltimore sacked Dunigan four times and picked off three passes. And when cornerback Gary Wilkerson went down with a hamstring pull in the second half -- he is out indefinitely -- the Stallions were glad they had an extra back.
"It's a tribute to the talent pool we have. I've never been on a squad with this much ability," said Brigance, who had two tackles and was in Dunigan's face often. "We have guys everywhere who can step in and contribute. It's a tremendous asset to have guys in the backfield who can cover like our guys can. It makes it so much easier for us to put pressure on the quarterback."
Besides frustrating Dunigan, the Stallions also took running back Keith Woodside out of the game. After averaging 11 yards each time he touched the ball in his first four games, Woodside produced 3 yards rushing and minus-16 yards receiving last night.
Baltimore running back Mike Pringle, the CFL's leading rusher, was a different story. He enjoyed his best game of the year, rushing 23 times for 137 yards, while adding 19 yards on three receptions and throwing in a few crunching blocks for good measure.
"I just try to get better each week," said Pringle, who established his presence with 98 first-half rushing yards. "The line executed perfectly. When I got past the line of scrimmage, my receivers blocked for me downfield. By moving the ball and scoring on them early, I think we deflated them."
It was an impressive display of depth and resilience by Baltimore, which didn't play a perfect game by any stretch. The team continued a bothersome trend by collecting 14 penalties, at a cost of 153 yards.
And they had more injuries. Linebacker Jason Bryant was lost to a sprained ankle and cornerback Irv Smith to a back problem, although Smith returned in the fourth quarter. Bryant is day-to-day. When Payton left the field early in the third quarter, the Stallions lost their premier pass rusher.
But nothing would keep Baltimore from hammering the Barracudas. The Stallions needed barely 10 minutes to take a 13-0 lead, with the highlight coming on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Ham to Shannon Culver.
Ham and Armstrong, who combined for multiple touchdowns for the seventh time as Baltimore teammates, hooked up for the first time barely five minutes into the second quarter. Ham, rolling to his right, found Armstrong, who made a diving catch in the end zone to give the Stallions a 20-1 lead with 10:07 left in the half.
After Birmingham cut the lead to 20-8, Baltimore stalled on two drives, thanks holding penalties. But in the closing seconds of the half, the Stallions stopped Birmingham.
Pinned against their goal line, the Stallions called on punter Josh Miller, who responded with a 70-yard bomb, putting the Barracudas on their 25. On the next play, Charles Anthony stepped in front of Morris and intercepted Dunigan, giving the Stallions possession at the Barracudas' 29.
Then, with eight seconds left in the half, Ham connected with Armstrong for an 11-yard touchdown that put the Stallions up 27-8.