Michigan Panthers vs. St. Louis Battlehawks | Week 1 UFL Preview

Michigan Panthers vs. St. Louis Battlehawks | Week 1 Preview

The final countdown is upon us. In just two days, the Michigan Panthers and St. Louis Battlehawks kick off their UFL season at Ford Field, in what should be a thrilling matchup between two teams with a lot to prove.

To briefly recap a season ago, each team had a different story. The St. Louis Battlehawks featured one of the best offenses in the XFL, winning seven games – but missed out on the postseason due to a tiebreaker scenario with Seattle.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Panthers struggled to close out affairs for most of the year, but won a week ten game that put them in the playoffs with a 4-6 record. They fell short in the semi-finals against Pittsburgh. That said, their late surge gives fans plenty of hope heading into this season.

With plenty of unknowns between both of these franchises, it’s time to take a look at what we can expect from this first game.

Quarterback Play

For the St. Louis Battlehawks, their QB1 being back means everything. A.J. McCarron has returned to the team, who brings his veteran NFL leadership back to Anthony Becht’s offense.

McCarron was one of the best – if not the best – quarterback in the spring football scene last year. He threw for 2,150 yards and 24 touchdowns in nine games, throwing just six interceptions. He was extremely efficient throughout the entire year. With A.J. back in the offense, expect the Battlehawks to score quite a few points, even though they will be facing a stout Michigan defense.

Questions For Michigan At QB

On Michigan’s side, E.J. Perry is returning to build upon the success he had a year ago. Perry was signed by Michigan late in the 2023 season, but was thrown into starting action in week ten. Despite the pressure of a win or go home situation, E.J. played an excellent second half, leading a 14 point comeback to put the Panthers in the postseason.

Perry brings so much to the offense. He’s got a huge arm, which was on full display in their playoff game with 370 passing yards. Additionally, the mobility he brings to the table is something the Panthers won’t take for granted. Last year, Carson Strong and Josh Love struggled to get out of the pocket, which hampered their offense.

Now, Perry isn’t the guaranteed starter. It feels like he should see the first snaps, but Danny Etling is on this roster who is very talented in his own regard. Etling spent the last few years in the NFL, and interestingly enough lost his spot on the Packers roster to former USFL MVP Alex McGough.

We could certainly see the Panthers adopt a 2-QB system. If Etling gets the start, one would expect the offense to look similar to how it did with E.J. at the helm. Both are mobile quarterbacks who can extend plays with their legs – and you can never count out their arms, either.

UPDATE: E.J. Perry is now the confirmed starter for the Michigan Panthers.

Standout Offensive Playmakers

It’s hard to find a place to start. The talent abounds so deep, especially in St. Louis. Even though they’ll be without All-Star WR Jahcour Pearson, this unit should be just fine.

The Battlehawks have retained Darrius Shepherd, Hakeem Butler, and Marcell Ateman from a season ago – their top three targets. After Shepherd and Butler ran through defenses last year, one can expect them to do the same again in 2024.

Blake Jackson and Jamarcus Bradley are a couple of additions that should see quality minutes as well on Saturday. Jackson in particular had an impressive campaign with the Sea Dragons in 2023.

The running back room looks quite a bit different for St. Louis this year. It’s highlighted by former NFL draft pick Wayne Gallman, who replaces Brian Hill. If Gallman gets the brunt of the carries this weekend, his production will be key in allowing A.J. McCarron to open up the passing game.

New Offense In Michigan

For the Panthers, this unit has a brand new feel offensively. They feature a new OC in Marcel Bellefeuille, who joins the team from the Philadelphia Stars. Marcel takes over for former OC Eric Marty.

With that change in mind, a couple of playmakers we can expect to see a lot out of are WR’s Jordan Suell and Devin Gray. Both have been key pieces to the Stars the last two years, and if Suell is healthy, he could be one of the top deep threats in the UFL.

Cole Hikutini was a touchdown machine for the Panthers a year ago, with five on his 2023 resume. Additionally, the team has retained Trey Quinn (438 yards, 4 TD’s), who could end up being WR1 in this offense.

One guy to watch closely is Marcus Simms. He finally got to shine late in the season, and proved to be a serious problem for opposing defenses. Additionally, he was a menace on special teams – sparking their comeback in week ten against Philadelphia.

This backfield should be exciting. Wes Hills, the USFL’s leading rusher in 2023, is now on the roster. Expect him to take the brunt of carries up front to wear the Battlehawks defense down. At the same time, former starting RB Matt Colburn (Stars) has made his way onto the team. Colburn is elite when healthy, and should be capable of doing serious damage.

The question remains: will the offensive line play hold up? The team has made a few excellent additions this offseason, but until they hit the field on Saturday, it’s unknown if we will see true improvement there.

A Tale Of Two Defenses

We know what we’re going to get with this Michigan Panthers defense. They’re stout, fierce, and fly around to the football.

A few big names are returning, including LB Frank Ginda (USFL DPOY), DE Breeland Speaks (USFL sacks leader), and DB Levonta Taylor (0 TD’s allowed).

That said, there are some new additions who should prove to be key players on Saturday. Former All-USFL safety Bryce Torneden is in Michigan after playing for the Pittsburgh Maulers. Nate Brooks, who won a Championship with the Stallions last year as a starter, is another great pickup.

Across the board, this unit has a ton of depth. However, it’s going to be a true test for Michigan to slow St. Louis down. The Panthers will have to hope that their defense can at least keep things close, to give E.J. Perry & Co. a chance.

For St. Louis, this team completely revamped their defense for 2024. The XFL’s DPOY, Pita Taumoepenu, leads the front seven. He disrupted opposing offenses all season in 2023, and should do the same for St. Louis this year.

The Battlehawks also retooled their secondary. Keylon Kennedy, Chris Payton-Jones, Channing Stribling, and Qwynnterrio Cole are just a few of the pieces they picked up during the last few months of player movement. After some tough moments last year in their inability to slow down top offenses, the Battlehawks need their defense to get off to a fast start in 2024.

Special Teams

St. Louis retained two of their three starters from a year ago. Punter Sterling Hofrichter is back, and so is LS Alexander Matheson, after an NFL stint with the Ravens.

Michigan, on the other hand, cleaned house. They have a brand new kicker in Jake Bates – who hasn’t kicked a field goal in a game since high school. Additionally, punter Brock Miller and LS Jordan Ober made their way over from the Generals.

Coaching Matchup

Michigan Panthers | Mike Nolan: Nolan heads into his second season coaching the Panthers. As expected, his team’s identity certainly leans into the defensive side of the football. With that said, some fresh faces on the coaching staff should help push this team to a more positive record this year.

St. Louis Battlehawks | Anthony Becht: Anthony Becht is a “players coach”. He’s loved by everyone in the league, and outside as well. While their team didn’t make the postseason last year, there is no denying the talent and success that St. Louis as a franchise has already seen. In his first year as a professional head coach, he won seven games. Expect Becht’s team to play with high levels of energy throughout the season.

Depth Chart

Final Thoughts

Even though the Michigan Panthers are the home team, it feels like St. Louis has the edge in this matchup. Their offense is tough to compete with. Plus, with an upgraded defensive unit, it might not be so easy for Michigan to match the points the Battlehawks will score.

However, we saw E.J. Perry throw for 370 yards against the USFL’s best defense last year. With a full training camp under his belt, Michigan’s ceiling should be higher than it was a season ago.

The Michigan Panthers host the St. Louis Battlehawks at Ford Field on Saturday, March 30th. The game kicks off at 4pm ET on FOX.

Full Roster Breakdowns: St. Louis, Michigan

What are your thoughts on this matchup between Michigan and St. Louis? Will the Panthers or Battlehawks reign victorious? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!