Jake Bates Heroics Lead Michigan Panthers Past St. Louis Battlehawks

Jake Bates Heroics Lead Michigan Panthers Past Battlehawks

It’s a great time to be alive if you’re a fan of spring football. The Michigan Panthers and St. Louis Battlehawks opened up their UFL seasons today, in a matchup that was bound to come down to the wire. Spoiler alert: it did.

Heading into this affair, it was tough to fully assess what to expect. These teams had never played each other before, and the USFL-XFL merger led to quite a bit of roster turnover for each group. After a slow start, things picked up in the second half for what turned out to be an instant UFL classic.

First Quarter

Right off the bat, both offenses looked rough. This isn’t much of a surprise, given the fact that there are no preseason games in spring football. Michigan and St. Louis both punted on their opening drives, as the defenses were prepared for action out of the gate.

E.J. Perry struggled to start. He threw an errant pass on their second drive, which led to an interception from Mike Rose, one of the stars on defense for St. Louis a year ago.

The rest of the first period was lackluster offensively, with both teams in a stalemate. Kai Nacua – who we will highlight later – was spectacular today, setting the tone early with a key sack.

Second Quarter

Michigan shot themselves in the foot often in this first half. The team marched deep into Battlehawks territory, and were poised to score.

However, a deflected pass from Perry ended up in the hands of Qwynnterrio Cole, and St. Louis took over.

This led to an extremely long drive for St. Louis, that took up almost the entire second quarter. The team methodically marched down the field, and eventually found themselves with a 3-0 lead heading into halftime. Andre Szmyt knocked through a 36 yard field goal, his first attempt of the year.

Third Quarter

Michigan’s defense continued to pound away in the second half. St. Louis, up front, greatly struggled. They weren’t able to generate any sort of explosiveness on the ground, and the offensive line was clearly outmanned in the trenches.

Daniel Wise was sensational tonight, and his sack of A.J. McCarron ended their opening drive of the third quarter.

At long last, E.J. Perry came alive for the Panthers. He got himself into a rhythm dropping a dime to Marcus Simms, which carried momentum through the rest of the outing.

A large gain from TE Cole Hikutini set the team up in the red zone once again. This time, E.J. Perry took it upon himself to score, darting up the middle to put the Panthers in front. The one point conversion from Matt Colburn was successful, and Michigan led 7-3.

St. Louis put together a fantastic drive, and were poised to take the lead. However, Anthony Becht decided to go for it on 4th and inches from inside the five, and Walter Palmore stuffed Wayne Gallman to end that possession.

Fourth Quarter

This is where things got really interesting. The Battlehawks got the ball back, and finally looked like the offense we were accustomed to seeing in 2023. In the final period, St. Louis’ offensive line stepped up, which allowed for McCarron to work his magic.

Jake Sutherland put on a legitimate performance today. He was responsible for the Battlehawks first touchdown of the day, catching a pass in the flat from McCarron for the score.

Michigan put together an outstanding response, though. Wes Hills is a difference maker in this backfield. He ripped off a couple of chunk yardage pickups for the Panthers, as they got into scoring position. Perry once again called his own number, scoring his second rushing touchdown of the afternoon.

The Panthers opted to go for the two point conversion, and were able to convert. Perry found WR Devin Ross for the score, putting Michigan in front 15-9.

Last year, St. Louis had an unbelievable comeback against San Antonio in their XFL opener. This time, the Battlehawks nearly pulled off an identical tale. On 4th and 10 from inside Michigan territory, McCarron found Marcell Ateman who made a spectacular catch on the sidelines for the conversion.

Ateman had his name called again. He ran a perfect route, finding just enough room on DB Keith Gipson to get open in the corner of the endzone.

With less than a minute to go, a Jake Sutherland XP attempt put the Battlehawks in front 16-15.

Jake Bates: The Unsung Hero

Enter Jake Bates. Talk about an underdog – what Bates pulled off in the final moments was unreal. First and foremost, E.J. Perry was able to put the Panthers in a position to attempt this wild game winner, getting the team to the Battlehawks 46 yard line in less than 40 seconds.

Then, Bates trotted out for the first time. The crazy part about all of this? Jake Bates hasn’t attempted a field goal, in a game, since high school. His first try since then: a 64 yarder with the season opener on the line.

Bates knocked through the attempt – but it didn’t count, as Becht had called a timeout to ice him. Bates had ice in his veins, though, blasting the second try through the uprights to give the Panthers an 18-16 lead.

With two seconds left, St. Louis did what they could on the return, but the Michigan Panthers shut it down, ultimately taking down the Battlehawks in thrilling fashion at Ford Field.

Standout Playmakers

QB E.J. Perry: While his passing stat-line wasn’t ideal, Perry settled into the offense in the second half quite smoothly. He put together two scoring drives, and then gave his kicker a shot at the end of the game. EJ’s mobility is something Michigan’s offense greatly missed a season ago.

RB Wes Hills: Hills came to the Panthers and did his thing today. The USFL’s leading rusher from a year ago is exactly what RB Coach Jordan Pavlisin ordered. Hill only had 11 carries today, but totaled 85 yards, and made a difference down the stretch of this game.

DB Kai Nacua: What a night for the older brother of LA Rams wide receiver, Puka. Kai was with Michigan last year and played well, but didn’t get much attention. This season could change that. Nacua was all over the place today, and led this defense with 11 tackles, two TFL, and a sack.

DT Daniel Wise: Wise is proving to be one of the best offseason pickups of any team in the UFL. Daniel made his mark in the trenches, posting eight tackles, two sacks, and a TFL. If he keeps playing like this, the NFL will come calling back in no time.

DB’s Nate Brooks & Bryce Torneden: Brooks and Torneden were lockdown throughout the game, with the two combining for 12 tackles and a TFL. Torneden in particular had a couple of game-changing plays, including some special teams appearances as well. Brooks, formerly a champion with the Birmingham Stallions, will no doubt be a vocal leader for this unit this season.

St. Louis Battlehawks

WR Marcell Ateman: Ateman was the one receiver who produced impressively well for the Battlehawks today. He put the team on his back down the stretch, and almost willed them to victory himself. His final statline saw six receptions for 60 yards and a score.

LB Willie Harvey Jr.: Harvey burst onto the scene today as someone who should continue to see quality minutes moving forward. Willie totaled seven tackles, including two TFL. He also had two PBU’s on the day.

LB Mike Rose: Rose returned to the spring football scene and did his thing once again. Mike posted four tackles, an interception, and a PBU.

Final Thoughts

This was an incredibly impressive performance from a scrappy Michigan Panthers team. The St. Louis Battlehawks certainly felt like the favorites, and were heavily favored in the betting odds (-6.5).

Collin Bauer’s defense showed up, plain and simple. A.J. McCarron couldn’t find much of a groove until the end of the game, which is quite impressive considering McCarron’s success a year ago. This is Bauer’s first season as a defensive coordinator at the professional level, and if his defense keeps playing like this, it won’t be his last.

The Battlehawks will have to find a way to bounce back. Next week, they’ll be making their home debut against the Arlington Renegades, who just fell to the Birmingham Stallions.

For the Panthers, they can’t stay too high on this one win. The season is long, and they face off against the back-to-back champs at home next week.

The UFL continues tomorrow on ESPN, with the San Antonio Brahmas hosting the DC Defenders at 12pm ET.

Did you watch this matchup between the St. Louis Battlehawks and Michigan Panthers? Who was your favorite player today? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!