Heading into this game, both teams have taken different paths. Birmingham has been dominant just as they were a year ago, finishing with an 8-2 record. In fact, they have won six straight games, including their playoff demolition of the New Orleans Breakers.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Maulers managed to win the North Division, in an uncommon way. The team, despite boasting so much talent, was 2-6 after week eight. It seemed like the season was all but over. However, they won their last two games – and, with some help from other North teams losing, Ray Horton’s Maulers made the postseason.
Let’s take a look at some of the keys to victory for the Pittsburgh Maulers, and what they have to emphasize to take down the USFL’s hottest team.
Protect The Football
Pittsburgh has done an efficient job of avoiding turnovers as of late. However, they’ll be facing off an opportunistic Birmingham defense – one that had multiple takeaways against New Orleans a week ago.
It’s going to be tough to slow down the Stallions as it is. But, if the Maulers can’t protect the football, it’s going to be nearly impossible. They cannot afford to turn the ball over. It would simply give Birmingham too much firepower and momentum. We saw what happened last week against the Breakers.
Establish The Run
Something that Pittsburgh has struggled with all year long is their ability to consistently run the football. Troy Williams has been a gem since taking the reins, leading the team in both passing and rushing. His mobility has proven to be vital to the Maulers’ success, and it was on display when these two teams met back in week four (7 carries, 63 yards, 1 TD).
However, Madre London and Garrett Groshek have both had their rough patches this season. This is partially due to the instability of the offensive line – which has shown improvements over the past few weeks.
If Pittsburgh wants a chance at winning this game, the pressure cannot be all on Troy Williams’ shoulders. He has been spectacular, especially recently, but he can’t beat the Stallions by himself. Ray Horton needs to get some sort of production from his backs this Saturday.
You cant make this up. Ishmael Hyman, who the Panthers released earlier this year, just put the @USFLMaulers in front with less than a minute to play.
The Pittsburgh Maulers are stacked offensively. Their receiving corps includes Tre Walker, Bailey Gaither, Isiah Hennie, and now Ishmael Hyman. Additionally, blocking TE Matt Seybert is an underutilized weapon, while WR/KR Joshua Simmons provides valuable minutes when he’s inserted into the lineup.
When Pittsburgh can run the football, it opens up so much for this team through the air. Troy has grown as a passer week in and week out, throwing for 203 yards and the go-ahead TD against Michigan in their playoff win.
Contain Alex McGough…How?
Joel Klatt and Brock Huard asked some legitimate questions on Sunday: how on earth do you slow down Alex McGough? Fans watched in awe as McGough dazzled and danced his way to over 300 passing yards, 75 rushing yards, and five total touchdowns against one of the USFL’s top defensive units.
Alex McGough is simply playing football on an entirely different level this half.
There's absolutely no way this man isn't on an NFL team after this #USFL season. What he's done in 2023 is simply absurd.
The good news for Pittsburgh: they have the best defense in the league. Jarren Horton (Assistant Coach of the Year) has put together one of the top defensive units we’ve ever seen in spring football. It’s packed to the brim with stars – and, the role players make the most of their minutes as well.
It all starts up front, with the defensive line. Can Boogie Roberts, Olive Sagapolu, Chris Okoye, etc. keep Alex in the pocket? McGough is extremely elusive, being arguably the hardest quarterback to contain.
In week four, Alex had 10 carries for 48 yards and a touchdown. Honestly, it’s relatively impressive that Pittsburgh kept him under 50 rushing yards, as McGough typically runs for more than that. It will be a challenge for the entire front seven. Reuben Foster and Kyahva Tezino are elite at the linebacker position, so their reinforcements will be pivotal in the trenches.
Where the Maulers could potentially see plenty of success, is in the secondary. Mark Gilbert, Arnold Tarpley III, Eli Walker, Bryce Torneden, etc. – this group has been sensational all year long. They’ve consistently slowed down premier USFL offenses.
Eli Walker, who's been tremendous for the @USFLMaulers in 2023, just came up with a big-time scoop and score to put Pittsburgh up 10.
It will be no easy task. Birmingham has plenty of talent to boast about on their end. CJ Marable, Davion Davis, Jace Sternberger, Deon Cain – the list goes on. The Stallions can beat the opposition in a number of different ways. But, if any defense can get the job done, it’s Pittsburgh.
Special Teams Spark
JOSHUA. SIMMONS. What a massive special teams play for the @USFLMaulers, as they take the lead after an 88 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, courtesy of @TM7_JS7.
Pittsburgh’s special teams unit has provided the organization with multiple game-changing plays throughout the 2023 season. Isiah Hennie and Joshua Simmons are two of the top returners in the league, with both being awarded with All-USFL honors this year.
Additionally, Chris Blewitt has been excellent for the Maulers. In his first week with the team, he went 5/5 in a win against Philadelphia. He also knocked through a 59 yarder on Saturday night, which was a key score late in the game. Meanwhile Matt Mengel is one of the top punters in the USFL, blasting an 83 yard bomb earlier in the season.
THE 59-YARD FIELD GOAL FROM CHRIS BLEWITT IS GOOD!
One would have to imagine that Pittsburgh is going to need another efficient and effective performance from their special teams.
Week Four Loss
When these two teams played back in week four, it was a back and forth battle. While Pittsburgh did control the first half, they didn’t pull away on the scoreboard, allowing the Stallions to hang around.
Alex McGough found his groove in the final two quarters, which gave Birmingham the lead. Troy Williams answered in the fourth, putting Pittsburgh back in front 20-17. However, on the very next play, Deon Cain took a kickoff to the house, which ultimately was the go-ahead score in a 24-20 win for the Stallions.
— B2B CHAMPIONSTALLIONS 🏆🏆 (@USFLStallions) May 8, 2023
There are some important positives to take away from this outing for the Pittsburgh Maulers. Their defense was solid, no surprise – and, offensively they found a rhythm towards the end.
The main challenge they had was slowing down WR Davion Davis, who had eight catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Outside of Davion, there weren’t many Stallions who made a major impact. However, Birmingham’s offense has found their identity as of late, scoring in bunches over the past few games. Pittsburgh is not facing the same unit that they did several weeks ago.
Truth be told, we’ll have to wait and see as to what happens this Saturday. Two of the hottest teams are about to face off in the Championship, as Birmingham has won six straight, while Pittsburgh has won three in a row.
Even though the Pittsburgh Maulers are underdogs in this affair, they absolutely cannot be counted out. This team is full of players who are hungry to prove everyone wrong, and they’ve done that in 2023. After finishing the 2022 season with a 1-9 record as the worst team in the North, they won the Division this year, something many did not predict.
The leadership of Ray Horton can’t go unnoticed. He’s been an excellent coach for the Maulers since taking over for Kirby Wilson, and now has a chance to bring a USFL title to Pittsburgh.
In addition, we saw how things went in the XFL 3.0. The 4-6 Arlington Renegades eventually won the entire thing, catching their stride at the perfect time. Pittsburgh will look to replicate exactly that.
The Birmingham Stallions and Pittsburgh Maulers will face off at 8pm ET this Saturday, on NBC. #1 offense vs. the #1 defense. Folks, grab your popcorn.
What are your thoughts on the Pittsburgh Maulers heading into the USFL Championship game? Which USFL players will have to impress in order for Pittsburgh to win? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!