Pittsburgh Maulers 2023 USFL Season Review: Worst To First

Pittsburgh Maulers 2023 USFL Season Review: Worst To First

If someone said before the 2023 USFL season that the Pittsburgh Maulers would win the North Division, the majority of listeners would find that statement hard to believe. However, the Maulers “revenge tour” did exactly that – proving almost everyone wrong in the process.

To fully understand the dramatic turnaround, one must start at the beginning. In 2022, the Pittsburgh Maulers were the laughing stock of the USFL. Under the leadership of Kirby Wilson, the team went 1-9, losing in heartbreaking fashion week after week. Pair their poor record alongside some unnecessary drama throughout the year, and it makes sense as to why most media members didn’t take them seriously.

However, the dynamic shifted before season two. Kirby Wilson decided to step down for personal reasons. Ray Horton took over in his absence, joining his son Jarren who was the defensive coordinator at the time.

With the Horton father-son duo in place, the Pittsburgh Maulers completely re-wrote the story of their franchise this season. Despite some ups and downs, it was a successful year for the Maulers from start to finish – and certainly is a story worth retelling.

The James Morgan Experiment

Things got off to a rough start in the black and gold. Ray Horton opted to go with former NFL draft pick James Morgan as the quarterback, who underperformed by a long shot.

In two losses against New Orleans and New Jersey, Pittsburgh’s offense was abysmal. Against the Breakers, Morgan threw for only 58 yards as the team mustered just three offensive points in a 22-15 loss.

Then, the Generals smoked Pittsburgh in Canton. The Maulers posted just 166 yards of total offense in a 20-3 defeat, with Morgan throwing for 54 yards and an interception before being pulled for Troy Williams.

Two games into the 2023 USFL season, and it was looking bleak for Pittsburgh. An 0-2 start had the entire fanbase prepared for a re-run of what happened a year prior.

Troy Williams: The Savior

In week three, everything changed. Ray Horton made the decision to start Troy Williams, which was something many wanted to see. Due to early issues with the offensive line, an immobile quarterback such as Morgan struggled to stay alive.

Williams, on the other hand, got right to work. He used his legs quite often to Pittsburgh’s advantage, leading the team in rushing yards in multiple games this season. Behind the legs of Troy Williams – and newly signed kicker Chris Blewitt who went 5/5, the Maulers rallied for their first win of the year against the Philadelphia Stars.

Jarren Horton’s defense went on an absolute tear over this stretch. Despite the early struggles as a whole, the defensive unit didn’t waver once from the first snap of the year. In fact, the sole reason why the Maulers had a chance in any of those first two games was because of the defense going above and beyond.

Pittsburgh would go 2-1 in weeks 3-5 due to their terrific defensive performances, alongside the brilliance of Troy Williams.

While the group lost a close battle to Birmingham in week four, it was an impressive effort which showcased the potential of this team. Week after week, it seemed like the team was discovering their identity – something that was missing in 2022.

Pittsburgh owned Ford Field this season, going 2-0 in the stadium. In week five, the Maulers demolished the Michigan Panthers. Josh Love and their offense didn’t stand a chance, with Pittsburgh’s defense holding them to just 152 total yards.

Troy Williams put on a show, posting 243 total yards himself while scoring three touchdowns. Despite the obstacles at the beginning of the year, the future looked bright for Horton and the rest of the crew.

Midseason Disaster

Things would take an unfortunate turn midway through the year. Pittsburgh lost all sense of direction, losing three straight games.

The downhill spiral began in week six against Memphis. The Maulers didn’t post a single point on offense, losing 22-0 in the only shutout of the USFL 2023 season.

Week seven would tell a different story, with the same outcome. This time, Pittsburgh was on fire offensively, scoring 31 points in a shootout against Philadelphia. However, the defense was out of sorts, as the Stars scored 37 points, resulting in another defeat.

Season Over?

The playoff aspirations seemed to fall apart in week eight. Heading into a matchup against the Houston Gamblers, everything was on the line. The Maulers risked falling to 2-6, which would put them in last in the North Division.

Pittsburgh knew the magnitude of this event. I made the trip to Canton for this affair, and on the field, one could feel the sense of urgency the organization had to get back in the win column.

Everything was going well…until it wasn’t. A ten point fourth quarter lead evaporated within minutes. Mark Thompson put the Gamblers on his back (no surprise), leading a double digit comeback to put Houston on top 20-19.

Pittsburgh had an opportunity down the stretch, putting the game’s fate in their trusty kicker: Chris Blewitt. However, his 41 yard field goal attempt sailed left, leaving the Maulers empty handed in a bitter one point defeat.

With a 2-6 record, Pittsburgh was staring down the barrel of another losing season. What stung even worse, was the idea of finishing last in the division, again. At this point, nearly everyone had written off the Pittsburgh Maulers.

From Worst…To First.

Week nine would prove to be the turning point of the season. Despite the record, Pittsburgh was still in the playoff hunt due to the North Division’s struggles. In Canton, the Maulers dismantled Michigan for a second time. Josh Love threw four interceptions, with Kyahva Tezino responsible for two of those as Pittsburgh put an end to their losing streak.

It all came down to the final matchup against New Jersey. Win, and you’re in. Pittsburgh was a much different team this time around, with Troy Williams in full command of the offense. The Maulers flipped the script on New Jersey, decimating Mike Riley’s Generals 26-6 in an effort that pushed them to the postseason.

Pittsburgh’s defense was astounding during this stretch. They allowed just 13 points over two games to their respective opponents, generating seven turnovers in the process. What makes this story even wilder is the fact that Pittsburgh ended up clinching the division title, due to their 2-0 record against Michigan, who also made the playoffs.

Championship Run

With newfound life, the Pittsburgh Maulers were quite entertaining to watch in the postseason. In the semi-finals, they faced off against Michigan for a third time – edging out their division rivals in an overtime classic.

A fun storyline to watch unfold in this matchup was WR Ishmael Hyman. Hyman was released from Michigan earlier in the year, and picked up by Pittsburgh almost immediately. In this game, Hyman caught the go-ahead touchdown with less than 30 seconds to go, which ultimately led to the victory.

Olive Sagapolu was an unsung hero in this affair, forcing a fumble which led to an early score, alongside the batted ball to win the game in overtime.

The Championship would prove to be a difficult task. Pittsburgh faced off against the red-hot Birmingham Stallions. While the Maulers put up a valiant effort, the Stallions strengths were too much to overcome, with Alex McGough throwing four touchdowns in a 28-12 win.

Two plays defined this game. Early in the first quarter, Troy Williams came centimeters away from scoring a touchdown, and the team settled for a field goal. Then, an Eli Walker fumble-six was called back due to an illegal forward handoff. Pittsburgh couldn’t capitalize, unable to score points off of the turnover.

Had a couple of things gone slightly differently, the Maulers might have lifted the trophy. Their inability to consistently score touchdowns came back to haunt them in the Championship. That being said, it was an entertaining season from this team, ultimately claiming the North Division crown for the first time in franchise history.

Major Storylines

Offensive Line Struggles: Pittsburgh’s offensive line was mediocre at best to begin the season. This is partially why the offense was in a rut early on. While Troy Williams turned things around, the additions of Leon Johnson and Terry Poole haven’t been talked about enough. Both became starters instantly, and elevated the level of play at an important time.

Rushing Roulette: An area of emphasis for next season in Pittsburgh has to be the backfield. Madre London and Garrett Groshek are one-dimensional backs, with downhill tendencies. This is by no means a bad thing – but, their similar running styles didn’t add much diversity to the offense. Rarely did either running back break off a run for more than ten yards. One has to wonder what things could look like if an explosive back such as Trey Williams moves to the Maulers next year.

Standout Playmakers

QB Troy Williams: The Pittsburgh Maulers found an entirely new identity with Troy Williams at the helm. He had an excellent 2023 USFL campaign – efficient with the football, while making plays in multiple ways. Williams threw for 1,414 yards in the regular season, alongside six touchdowns. He only threw three interceptions. In addition, Troy led the team in rushing yards with 341 – adding three touchdowns on the ground to his total tally.

WR Isiah Hennie: Hennie-time, Hennie-where, Hennie-place. Isiah Hennie had an excellent season for the Pittsburgh Maulers, leading the team in receiving yards (474). He was electrifying all year long, not just as a receiver either. Hennie led the USFL in punt return yards, earning All-USFL honors in that category.

WR Joshua Simmons: Similar to Hennie, Simmons was a multi-faceted player who made the most of his opportunities. While Josh didn’t see as much playing time offensively, he led the USFL on special teams in kick return yards (862). He also was part of the 2023 All-USFL Special Teams roster, showing everyone his skills in week seven with a kickoff return touchdown against Philadelphia.

Honorable Mentions: TE Matt Seybert – not enough attention was given to Matt this year, who is a more than capable route runner. In addition, he’s an excellent blocker who was utilized in that area often this season. Also, WR Bailey Gaither had several notable highlights, including a ridiculous one-handed grab against Michigan in week five.

Defense

DL Boogie Roberts: The Boogie Monster was on a tear this season, racking up 32 tackles, eight TFL, and three sacks in 2023. The growth and maturity of his game was evident compared to a year ago, serving as a leader for Jarren Horton’s defense. After Boogie’s hot start, teams began to double team him quite often, which allowed others to shine. Roberts is the true definition of a warrior, playing through a meniscus tear through the final two games.

Boogie Roberts was the second highest PFF graded Mauler (79.9):

“The well-rounded Boogie Roberts ranked tied for third in run stops (13) and quarterback pressures (23) among USFL interior defenders. He was one of only four players at the position to earn 70.0-plus grades both as a pass rusher and a run defender.”

DL Olive Sagapolu: Olive Sagapolu led the Maulers with four sacks in 2023, while posting 22 tackles and three TFL. He was an important piece throughout the entire year, consistently pressuring quarterbacks and stuffing the run.

DL Nasir Player: An underrated athlete from the 2023 USFL season is Nasir Player, who proved to be a consistent force for Horton’s defense. Player finished the year with 28 tackles, three TFL, and 3.5 sacks. Nasir forced a clutch fumble in week ten, which ultimately resulted in the team clinching a playoff berth.

LB Kyahva Tezino: Kyahva Tezino is another player who showed growth in 2023. Tezino did a bit of everything for Pittsburgh this year, leading the team in tackles (94), while racking up nine TFL, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. One would imagine that Kyahva will garner NFL interest after such a successful year.

LB Reuben Foster: Speaking of making returns to the NFL, the former first-round NFL pick was fantastic. Foster was the highest PFF graded Mauler (90.5), and was the only linebacker to record a grade higher than 90.0 while taking over 150 snaps. Reuben finished the year with 53 tackles, three TFL, and one interception.

CB Mark Gilbert: Per recent reports, Mark Gilbert has NFL interest, and rightfully so. Mark was arguably the top cornerback in the USFL this season, as the stats don’t lie. He led the league with four interceptions, while posting 32 tackles and 15 passes defensed (1st in the USFL). Time and time again, Gilbert took on the toughest assignments for Horton’s defense, and excelled. According to PFF, he was the third highest graded Mauler, with a grade of 79.2.

S Arnold Tarpley II: The hometown kid played quite well for the Pittsburgh Maulers this season. Tarpley has been around the block in spring football, but found a home with Pittsburgh. In 2023, he recorded 42 tackles, two TFL, and three interceptions. Arnold’s raw talent was on full display this year, showcasing just how much he’s refined his game over the past few seasons.

Honorable Mentions

There are so many players to highlight from Pittsburgh’s defense. Jarren Horton did an outstanding job of putting together a collective effort of stars and role players who all fit into the scheme perfectly. A few names who deserve recognition as well would be:

DL Terry Beckner Jr: 23 tackles | 2 TFL | 3 sacks
LB Vaughn Taylor: 17 tackles | 4 TFL | 2 sacks
DB Keith Gipson Jr: 26 tackles | 2 TFL | 2 INT
DB Bryce Torneden: 46 tackles | 1 TFL | 3 PD
S Eli Walker: 37 tackles | 1 sack | 1 INT

Special Teams

As previously mentioned, both Isiah Hennie and Joshua Simmons were sensational for Pittsburgh on special teams. Luckily, the rest of their unit was just as strong.

After a rough two weeks with Nathan Hierlihy, the Pittsburgh Maulers signed Chris Blewitt. This turned out to be a phenomenal pickup, as Blewitt was fantastic. In just his first game with the team, he went 5/5 on field goal attempts, leading the Maulers to their first win of the season.

He was clutch throughout the entire year, including a 59 yard field goal down the stretch in a playoff victory against Michigan. Blewitt was 21/25 on the season, and 17/18 from inside 50 yards.

Meanwhile, Matt Mengel is one of the unsung heroes of the USFL. He resurrected his career with the Maulers, dominating as a punter in his second USFL stint. Mengel finished the season averaging 42.5 YPP – while putting 38% of those inside the 20 yard line, which is an excellent statistic. He also booted an 83 yard bomb in week nine, which was the longest punt of the 2023 USFL season.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was a solid year for the Pittsburgh Maulers. Even though they finished the regular season with a losing record, Pittsburgh did what they had to do to make the postseason. Better yet, they made a run all the way to the Championship, falling just short in the end.

The players have clearly unified behind Ray Horton, who did an outstanding job of turning things around. Multiple USFL executives, including President Daryl Johnston, spoke very highly of the job he did in 2023. With a full year of head coaching under his belt, it will be intriguing to see how the team builds upon the culture he instilled moving forward.

General Manager Lonnie Young deserves some credit as well. He came into Pittsburgh after season one, and proved exactly why he belongs in this position with the remarkable talent he brought to the team (i.e. Reuben Foster, Troy Williams).

In addition, Jarren Horton showed the potential he has not just as a defensive coordinator – but also, potentially as a head coach in the near future. Horton’s defense was ranked #1 in the USFL in multiple categories, which earned him Assistant Coach of the Year honors.

After tasting Championship success this season, one would imagine that the Pittsburgh Maulers will be even hungrier next year. With their improvement from 1-9 to 4-6 and in the playoffs, we’ll see if they can continue to take steps forward next year.

What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh Maulers 2023 USFL season? What do they need to do next year to win it all? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!

  1. James great story! The one thing I would add is that with the two additional game day roster spots most team will carry 3 running backs. I think that will allow them to have a different type of runner on gameday. It is clear that up until this point their offensive linemen cannot pull. At mid-season I challenged them to run block. I felt the linemen could not block and having Williams run all the time was making the line lazy and putting Troy Williams at risk, plus he fumbled when he wasn’t even hit by anyone. I doubt they read what I wrote, but they must have felt it too, because they started forcing runs, even though they didn’t really run to the outside holes. They knew they could do this because the defense held tough and Williams as a penchant for good throws when needed and to be honest they have a solid receivers corp. With this said, with the 3rd running back they will make some adjustments to the line and learn to run outside. It is just the natural progression. I agree and I think Trey Williams would be a great addition, but he will not be a weapon if the line does not learn to pull. I believe they will and as much as the league improved this year they will even more next year. Looking forward to seeing these teams on display in their home cities. PS. A lot of people slip on the turf in Canton. I love that site, but I really think they need to solution for that.

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