The Michigan Panthers had quite the season in the USFL in 2023. It was full of ups and downs: rocky lows, brilliant highs, and everything else in between.
After a 2-8 outing in 2022, this team was determined to make a playoff push this year. With a re-loaded roster that featured some impressive playmakers, they were poised to do exactly that.
A curveball was thrown the team’s way before the season, as Head Coach Jeff Fisher decided to step away from the game. The USFL brought in Mike Nolan as his replacement, bringing a defensive mindset to the table, which was made evident throughout the year.
Exceptional fan turnout last night for the @USFLPanthers. Without a doubt, the loudest it's been all year.
The #USFL is here to stay in Detroit. Excited to see the growth in year three. What a special season it turned out to be at Ford Field. pic.twitter.com/IqKplzRLQw
While the Michigan Panthers found a way to make the playoffs, they took an unorthodox path. Let’s take a look back on their 2023 season, and break down everything that went down along the way.
An Electric Start
It was all good vibes for Michigan through the first two weeks of action. QB Josh Love, who joined the team late in 2022, ended up winning the starting gig over Carson Strong and Eric Barriere. At first, it seemed like he was primed to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
In week one, the Panthers dismantled Houston 29-13, fueled by an other-worldly performance from Love, who completed over 90% of his passes (USFL record) en route to a three touchdown outing. This game certainly made it seem like Michigan was in position to be a dominant force in the North.
Week two would tell a similar story. This time, it was Reggie Corbin’s turn to perform, as he rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns, beating Philadelphia 24-10. DE Breeland Speaks proved to be invaluable during this stretch, with back-to-back game winning plays that pushed Michigan to a 2-0 record.
With so much momentum, it appeared as if the team would ride this high into a four week home stretch. Unfortunately, this would not be the case in the slightest.
Horrors At Home
As the Michigan Panthers took the field in Detroit for the first time in almost 40 years, the anticipation and excitement in the air could not have been any stronger. Fans showed up in large numbers, ready to watch their undefeated team get to work.
However, the New Jersey Generals would have other plans. QB De’Andre Johnson and RB Darius Victor put on a show, running all over Michigan’s defense. After such an impressive start to the season, the Panthers looked out of sorts across the board, losing 28-13 in their home debut.
Darius Victor cannot be stopped. This @USFLGenerals rushing attack has been lethal so far. Absolutely zero answers for @yungvitov.
No one was in panic mode, yet. The 0-3 Memphis Showboats were coming to town, which seemed like an easy way to get back on track.
Cole Kelley and the new-look Showboats dominated Michigan, as the Panthers had zero rhythm or pride. Josh Love and Carson Strong combined for just 134 yards through the air, as the team managed only 10 points – trending backwards as an offense.
This trend would continue a week later, facing off against a hungry Pittsburgh Maulers unit. After scoring on their opening drive, Michigan would be shut out the rest of the outing. Troy Williams shined at Ford Field as he led Pittsburgh to a 23-7 win over the Panthers. Turnovers were a thorn in Michigan’s side, with Love and Strong both tossing red zone interceptions which ended promising drives.
Despite the loss, Breeland Speaks had himself a day:
While the defense did what they could to keep each game in arm’s reach, it was an uphill battle week in and week out. After dropping to 2-3, Michigan was then faced with the impossible task of trying to slow down a streaking Alex McGough and Birmingham Stallions organization.
This game was simply a mess across the board. A perfect example of what Michigan looked like during this stretch came at the end of the first half. As time ticked down, the Panthers were in a position to kick a field goal. However, a miscommunication resulted in Josh Love running an extra play as time expired, instead of spiking the ball to kick the field goal.
An ugly 27-13 loss at home saw the Panthers staring down the barrel of a 2-4 record, looking like a disheveled shell of a team who was decimating opponents just a few weeks prior.
Hope On The Road
Interestingly enough, the winning streak would maintain itself on the road. Michigan took a trip to Canton, and got their revenge against the New Jersey Generals, who were dealing with quarterback issues of their own.
Josh Love was an enigma at this point. After four straight weeks of mediocre performances, he threw for three touchdowns, leading Michigan to a 25-22 win. Reggie Corbin, who had also been relatively silent, posted 78 yards of his own as the Panthers got back on track.
Even though they lost in week eight to the Breakers, the team impressed. Even after New Orleans went up 21-0, this unit did not give up – with Love throwing them right back in the game. Warren Saba was a key component as well, forcing two turnovers to give Michigan life.
Warren. Saba. Mr. Do-It-All is keeping the @USFLPanthers in this ball game. After recovering a fumble earlier, @HOLLYWOOD17__ picks off Bethel-Thompson to set up the Panthers nicely right before half.
Ultimately, the comeback would come up just short, with New Orleans winning 24-20. However, it felt like the Panthers had regained their offensive identity, in a position to make a late playoff push despite a 3-5 record.
Week nine would be a tough reality check for the team. They had to face off against Pittsburgh once again, and things went just as they did the last time: terrible. The Maulers absolutely pummeled Michigan from start to finish.
Love had one of his worst performances of his career, throwing four interceptions to an opportunistic Maulers defense that suffocated Josh and the entire offense. Without Reggie Corbin available, the team only posted a total of 50 yards on the ground.
Kyahva Tezino is having himself a DAY. The #USFL DPOY candidate picks off Josh Love for the second time today, and Pittsburgh takes over again.
A 19-7 loss left Michigan with a 3-6 record. At this point, the season was seemingly over…or, so we thought. What happened next was storybook.
EJ Perry: Unsung Hero
To fully understand the week ten scenario, we have to rewind a few weeks. Fans had been begging to see another quarterback, and many wanted Eric Barriere – as Carson Strong had been placed on the injured reserve list.
However, everyone was shocked when Eric Barriere was released in week seven, having not been given a single snap during the 2023 season.
Mike Nolan and the Panthers then signed NFL prospect EJ Perry, but most didn’t expect him to see time in 2023. Nolan was sticking with Love, and also had Brian Lewerke as a backup if needed.
Breaking: Josh Love has been moved to the inactive roster for the @USFLPanthers.
According to the official #USFL depth chart, E.J. Perry is in line to start. With the season on the line. Blockbuster move by Mike Nolan.
Then, a major shakeup occurred. Ahead of a week ten matchup against Philadelphia – which, by some miracle, was a “win or go home” situation – Mike Nolan decided to make an abrupt change, throwing Perry into the starting role.
Mind you, Perry had only been with the team for a couple of weeks at this point. Despite this, he looked very comfortable in the pocket, especially in the second half. While almost everyone had counted the Panthers out ahead of this matchup, EJ led the team to victory in remarkable fashion, and the Panthers clinched the postseason.
Even though Michigan had lost four games at home already, the fans made their presence known, and finally got to see a victory at Ford Field before the season ended. It was a special moment for the organization, and the league as a whole.
The @USFLPanthers flipped the script in the second half, shutting out the @USFLStars to punch their #USFL playoff ticket. I asked HC Mike Nolan about their halftime adjustments; his response is fascinating:
"Honest to God, we didn't make any adjustments at halftime."
With EJ Perry at the helm, the Michigan Panthers played some of the best football of their entire season. In the North Division Championship, it was a back and forth battle between Michigan and the Maulers. After being blown out twice in a row by Pittsburgh, the Panthers were in a position to win this game down the stretch.
Those who tuned in were treated to a thrilling overtime affair, with Pittsburgh just barely pulling it out in the final seconds. While Michigan fell just short of the ultimate goal, their late season turnaround gives the team plenty of hope heading into the 2024 season.
Despite the loss last night, EJ Perry gave it everything he had:
23/38 (60.5%) 370 passing yards 9.7 YPA 3 total TD
EJ Perry proved to be an unbelievable pickup. He threw for 370 yards in the playoffs, which is remarkable – and, it’s a USFL record. If they can manage to retain him for next year, that automatically puts the team in a position to run it back.
Throughout the year, there were a few storylines that determined multiple wins, and losses:
– Dominant Defense: Mike Nolan’s defensive unit was excellent, as expected. Breeland Speaks, Frank Ginda, Levonta Taylor, etc. – the defense was full of playmakers, and it showed. The Panthers wouldn’t have had a chance at even sniffing the playoffs had it not been for the consistency of this group.
– Offensive Line Struggles: Part of the reason why Josh Love and Reggie Corbin could not find much of a groove revolved around the offensive line. Injuries, and inconsistent play hampered the full potential of this unit. While they saw improvements down the stretch, the offensive line has to be an area of emphasis for Michigan heading into the offseason.
– Rushing Roulette: Speaking of Reggie Corbin, the former All-USFL running back didn’t seem like the same player in 2023. While some of this can be attributed to the offensive line issues – and the overall scheme of OC Eric Marty – Corbin was lacking important production that many expected to see this year. Generally speaking, the ground game underachieved. In the playoffs, Michigan combined for only 40 rushing yards as a whole.
The Michigan Panthers featured plenty of athletes who made an impact, many of which will likely see NFL attention heading into the offseason.
WRTrey Quinn: The former NFL receiver did not disappoint in the USFL. Trey Quinn was excellent, serving as arguably the most consistent offensive player on the entire team. Quinn wrapped up the year with 437 receiving yards and four touchdowns. In addition, he posted 104 yards and a score in the playoffs.
WRJoe Walker: While Walker had a couple of hiccups along the way, there’s no doubt that he was one of the top receivers in the USFL this year. Joe finished his 2023 campaign with 509 receiving yards alongside three scores. His 121 yard outing in week seven was pivotal to their win against New Jersey.
Well, I'm eating my words. Outstanding opening drive to this half for Josh Love and the @USFLPanthers, capped off with a TD to a wide open Cole Hikutini to pull back within one score.
TECole Hikutini: An underrated offensive weapon from 2023 was Cole Hikutini, who was an outstanding tight end for Michigan. On just 21 receptions, Cole racked up 239 yards and five touchdowns, leading the team in that category.
DEBreeland Speaks: Speaks is another example of a former NFL player coming to the USFL, and dominating. Breeland was sensational, leading the USFL with nine sacks. Additionally, he posted 53 tackles and 6 TFL, making plays that won the Panthers multiple games. Without a doubt, he’ll be getting NFL looks soon.
Breeland Speaks is having a monster outing for the @USFLPanthers today.
LBFrank Ginda: The official Defensive Player of the Year was as solid as it gets for Mike Nolan’s defense. Ginda was the “signal caller” for this unit, leading the way with 104 total tackles (1st in USFL), while racking up three interceptions. Frank “The Tank” has been a force for Michigan for the past two years, doing a bit of everything for the team along the way. Frank won DPOW four times, and tied a USFL record with an 18 tackle performance in week six.
CBLeVonta Taylor: Levonta Taylor had an exceptional year for Michigan, not allowing a single touchdown through eleven games. He was a pillar for the secondary, taking on many challenges and excelling often.
Meet Michigan Panthers CB Levonta Taylor
Didn't let up a single TD the entire USFL season
39 total tackles
Top CB in the ENTIRE USFL
Any NFL team would be lucky to have this dawg. Started every single game this season, played through injuries, and never missed a step. A… pic.twitter.com/x7hUqlsAXQ
CBJosh Butler: Butler was one of the top cornerbacks in the USFL in 2023, serving the Panthers with plenty of quality play during the season. Between Butler and Taylor, the secondary consistently locked down opponents throughout the year.
Across the board, the defense picked up valuable players that contributed in important ways. Garrett Marino, Levi Bell, Warren Saba, etc. all did their jobs well, excelling in important moments.
Michigan’s special teams play was respectable in 2023. Kyle Kramer and Cole Murphy posted solid numbers, albeit a couple of mishaps throughout the year. Murphy missed a few XP attempts, but also knocked through multiple kicks from 50+ yards out. In addition, Cole hit a game-tying 48 yarder as time expired in regulation during their playoff matchup against Pittsburgh.
Shane Griffin’s long snapping duties were underappreciated as well, with Michigan very rarely, if ever, seeing any issues on that end.
It’s tough to accurately judge the Michigan Panthers 2023 season simply due to the different versions of the team we saw from week to week. At times, they would look primed to make a Championship run. Then a week later, the team couldn’t even score more than seven points.
Clearly, the late addition of EJ Perry proved to be a major boost. His dual threat capabilities were exactly what the Panthers needed, giving them life when hope seemed lost. Perry will be a name to keep an eye on this offseason. He already has NFL interest – but, if that doesn’t pan out, it would be fantastic to see him back in a Panthers uniform.
What a special night for professional sports in the state of Michigan. Still thinking about how electric that atmosphere was.
Privileged to have been able to capture these moments at Ford Field this year. Looking forward to the #USFL postseason in Canton! pic.twitter.com/gmNCkQGjoi
Mike Nolan was exactly what we expected him to be. He’s a solid coach, with a brilliant defensive mind. However, offensively he can be too conservative at times. There’s a reason why this offense wasn’t consistent – Nolan would often play things safe, which led to a stagnant team.
Overall, the Michigan Panthers made waves this season, making the playoffs despite a 4-6 record. Had just a couple of plays gone their way in the final moments, they would have been playing for a Championship. With postseason experience under their belt, this team is ready to make another run in 2024 if the right pieces remain.
What are your thoughts on the Michigan Panthers 2023 season? Which USFL players do you hope to see back in the NFL? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!