Mistakes That Defined The 2024 USFL Conference Championship | Birmingham Stallions vs. Michigan Panthers

Mistakes That Defined The 2024 USFL Conference Championship

With 3:59 left in the second quarter, the Michigan Panthers held an impressive 18-3 lead over the Birmingham Stallions on the road.

Less than two quarters later, they trailed 31-18 after allowing 28 unanswered points from the Stallions, who punched their ticket to the UFL Championship with the win this Saturday.

What in the world went wrong for Michigan after such a dominant first half?

Well, the issues began long before the second half got under way. In fact, while Birmingham’s late QB adjustment was the nail in the coffin, it was their first half resiliency that ultimately led to the comeback win.

Michigan’s Self Inflicted Wounds

The Michigan Panthers will be kicking themselves all offseason following this loss, simply because they controlled their own fate in this game, and did everything possible to make it difficult on each other.

Actually, the mistakes started piling up on the Panthers’ second drive of the game. After their defense forced Birmingham into a turnover on downs, Michigan proceeded to have a three and out, settling for their first field goal. On 3rd and 3 during this drive, Danny Etling missed a wide open Siaosi Mariner – which would be the first of many errant throws from Etling in this game.

The story of this first half for the Panthers was their inability to put the game away early. After their first touchdown, Michigan attempted five field goals. As predicted, this would catch up to them.

Another mistake in the first quarter killed what should have been a drive that resulted in a touchdown. On 2nd and 6 from Birmingham’s 27 yard line, Matt Colburn couldn’t maintain possession during the handoff, and was tackled for a six yard loss – and Michigan had to kick another field goal. A similar moment would happen on their ensuing possession. Colburn rushed for a three yard loss on 2nd and 2, and then Etling proceeded to completely miss Trey Quinn on third down.

Fast forward a bit, and special teams would all of a sudden prove to be an issue. After a made field goal to take an 18-3 lead, Jake Bates would kickoff out of bounds, giving the Stallions the football on the 50 yard line. After what was a putrid first half for Birmingham’s offense, the next play was a 50 yard strike to Jordan Thomas, and just like that it was a one score game.

Second Half Come Apart

While Michigan “dominated” the first half, their mistakes in the second quarter set the tone for the ultimate collapse in the final periods. They went into halftime with only a six point lead, as a pass interference penalty on Nate Brooks allowed Birmingham to kick another field goal.

In the second half, these trends carried over – and were magnified. The little mistakes turned into big mistakes, and were ones that Michigan simply couldn’t overcome. Even after successfully executing a fake punt, the Panthers still turned the ball over, as Etling fumbled on the very next play.

Danny Etling, in particular, put this team in a deep hole in the second half. His first interception was a terrible overthrow to Devin Gray. Somehow, his second pick was even worse. Instead of throwing it to an open Marcus Simms on the sidelines, Etling forced the ball into a window that didn’t exist, resulting in a pick six from Daniel Isom, tying the game.

It felt like Danny didn’t trust himself, or his decision making, in the second half. One example of this was on 2nd and 7, when Etling rolled right, and had a couple of receivers wide open, but decided to throw it to a tightly covered Cole Hikutini. While it feels like a very minute piece to the grand, bigger picture, it’s these small details that ultimately gave Birmingham full control of this football game.

Additionally, Nate McCrary hardly touched the ball in the second half. It was an odd approach, given all the success he had in the first two quarters. Granted, with very little momentum, OC Marcel Bellefeuille likely felt more pressure to throw the ball – but, Michigan’s bread and butter all year was running the football, and they went away from that at a crucial point in the game.

Birmingham’s Fourth Quarter Dominance

After doing everything they could all afternoon long, Michigan’s defense crumbled in the fourth quarter. It’s tough to blame them, given how winded they were with very little offensive support. Matt Corral entering the game threw this unit for a loop – after they had defended against Adrian Martinez so well. Corral’s bomb to Gary Jennings to open up the fourth quarter opened up this offense in a way it hadn’t been all day, and that marked the beginning of the end for the Panthers.

The Stallions would rattle off 13 more points in the fourth quarter, taking it to the Panthers 31-18. Michigan’s lone decent drive of the half resulted in a Bates’ field goal that was blocked. Even then, a couple of mental errors previously (such as Etling’s dangerous pass on 3rd down) once again prevented Michigan from putting points on the board.

So much credit has to be given to Corey Chamblin, and the job he did defensively. As aforementioned, the Panthers had an opportunity to go up by 20-30 points in the first half, but settled for field goals time and time again. Corey’s defense held the Panthers to just 2/12 in third down situations. Their lack of production in the red zone – or anytime they got close – showcased his unit bending, but not breaking.

Had it not been for Birmingham’s defensive efforts, their comeback likely wouldn’t have even been possible, no matter who was at the quarterback position. If Michigan’s offense stayed in a rhythm, and didn’t shoot themselves in the foot, they would’ve had 30+ points in the first half alone.

Final Thoughts

This weekend was a perfect example of the resiliency and culture that Head Coach Skip Holtz has built in Birmingham. With their championship pedigree, the Stallions stayed focused and diligent throughout the entire process, even when things looked disastrous.

There were so many points in this game where Birmingham could have thrown in the towel. That first half was about as ugly as it could get – but despite all of their mistakes (i.e. 11 penalties), they turned the tide, and capitalized on Michigan’s shortcomings.

Now, the Birmingham Stallions will face off against the San Antonio Brahmas this Sunday, in an effort to earn their third straight spring football championship.

Final Note: One has to wonder how this game would have played out, if Michigan decided to rest QB Bryce Perkins in week 10…

What are your thoughts on Michigan’s fallout in the second half in this game? What did this win say about Birmingham’s character? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!