Pittsburgh Maulers Keep Playoff Hopes Alive Dominating Michigan

Pittsburgh Maulers Keep Playoff Hopes Alive Dominating Michigan

Week nine in the USFL kicked off this afternoon, as the Pittsburgh Maulers hosted the Michigan Panthers in what was a pivotal game for the North Division.

Heading into this matchup, the Michigan Panthers were 3-5, yet held the second seed in the North. They’ve been excellent on the road (3-1), but a four game losing streak at home has put them well under the .500 mark.

Meanwhile, Ray Horton’s Maulers last win came against these same Panthers, in week five. Pittsburgh dominated, coming away with a 23-7 victory. Since then, it’s been all downhill as mental mistakes and self-inflicted wounds have haunted the team week in and week out.

Let’s take a look at what happened in Canton today, as it was a defensive slugfest.

First Quarter

Pittsburgh received the opening kickoff, and wasted no time. Joshua Simmons faked an end around on the return, which allowed him to break it all the way to Michigan’s 29 yard line.

Just two plays later, the Maulers capitalized on the field position. Troy Williams dropped an absolute dime to Joshua Simmons, who made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone. Just like that, Pittsburgh took a 7-0 lead.

It wouldn’t be quite the same start for Michigan. Despite a solid return, Joe Walker would come up just short on a third down completion, which resulted in a punt.

The Panthers defense stepped up on this possession. Kai Nacua made one heck of a play in the backfield, blitzing Williams and taking him down for a loss of ten. Levi Bell finished things off with another sack, and Pittsburgh had to punt.

Michigan continued to shoot themselves in the foot offensively. Josh Love just missed Walker on a throw, which resulted in a tipped interception for Mark Gilbert, who’s had an outstanding season defensively for the Maulers.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line was having trouble in this period. Garrett Marino sacked Williams early, and then on third down Breeland Speaks got to Troy for the Panther’s fourth sack of the quarter. Obviously, this led to a punt from the Maulers.

Matt Mengel made sure that Pittsburgh got the most out of that punt. He sent it 83 yards down the field, completely switching fields for the Maulers.

Turnovers continued to be an issue for Michigan. After AJ Richardson made an excellent catch down the sidelines, another tipped pass resulted in an interception. Kyahva Tezino came down with the batted ball, and Pittsburgh took over.

A long quarter finally came to a close, with Michigan ready to take over once again.

Second Quarter

While the Panthers had opportunities to make something happen offensively, penalties held them back. Also, mental mistakes have been a key factor in Michigan’s struggles. On the punt attempt, Madre London came flying in unblocked, which led to a blocked punt and recovery for Pittsburgh.

The Maulers once again took advantage of a short field, as Chris Blewitt knocked through a 43 yard kick. Pittsburgh’s defense was unstoppable, dominating as they did a few weeks ago. Will Miles got home to Love on third down, thanks to the assistance of Boogie Roberts, which led to another punt for the Panthers.

Pittsburghs’ offense wasn’t too hot, though. Had it not been for the turnovers – and Joshua Simmons’ big return – they likely would’ve been scoreless as well. Another punt gave Michigan a chance to put points on the board before halftime.

However, Michigan couldn’t get out of their own way. Love threw a pass right to Keith Gipson Jr., setting up Pittsburgh with another short field.

To close the half, Chris Blewitt hit another field goal, and the Pittsburgh Maulers led 13-0.

Third Quarter

The Michigan Panthers looked like a completely different team to kick off the second half. A five play,73 yard drive resulted in Michigan scoring quickly. Josh Love found a wide open Cole Hikutini, and just like that it was a one score game.

Michigan’s defense got a stop, giving the offense a chance to tie things up, or take the lead. However, Vaughn Taylor had other plans – coming up with a big-time sack of Love on third down to force a punt.

On a long 3rd and 13, Isaiah Hennie made a ridiculous catch down the sidelines, to keep the drive alive. This led to another score for Pittsburgh, as Blewitt hit a 26 yard field goal to extend the lead to nine.

Kyahva Tezino had himself a day. Love underthrew a pass to Hikutini, and Tezino came away with the football to give Pittsburgh possession again.

With just fifteen minutes left to play, the Maulers were in control with a nine point lead, and possession.

Fourth Quarter

While Pittsburgh had an opportunity to put more points on the board, Frank Ginda and Levi Bell combined for an important sack, leading to a punt. The Panthers could not capitalize, though, and they had to send it right back.

Pittsburgh smoothly moved the football down the field on their ensuing drive. Madre London finally got going, breaking off some chunk yardage to put the team in scoring position. Blewitt hit a short kick, and Pittsburgh went up 19-7.

Michigan had an opportunity to get into striking range, with Love putting them in Pittsburgh territory. On 4th and 16, though, Isaiah Green-Way got to Love in the backfield again, and the Maulers took over on downs.

The Panthers did force a punt, but didn’t have nearly enough time to make anything happen. The clock ultimately ran out on them, as the Pittsburgh Maulers came away with a season-saving 19-7 win.

Standout Playmakers

LB Kyahva Tezino: The DPOY candidate was on fire today, no surprise. Tezino led the defense all day long, making plays across the board to push them to victory. He finished the game with 7 TFL, 2 INT, and 3 PD. This performance might just lock up the award for him in 2023.

WR Joshua Simmons: It was an excellent day for Simmons, who got the scoring started with a big opening return, followed by an outstanding catch in the end zone. Simmos has developed quite nicely for Pittsburgh in 2023, and is doing what he can to get an NFL look – especially on special teams.

DB Bryce Torneden: The former All-USFL defender has done an excellent job this season, and led the team with 10 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, and 1 PD. He’s quietly been one of the top defenders in the USFL in 2023.

DE Vaughn Taylor: Taylor has had a solid season for Pittsburgh, doing what he’s needed to do when his name is called. Vaughn posted 4 tackles, 1 TFL, and a clutch sack today.

Pittsburgh Maulers Defense: To be fair, we could write something about everyone on the Maulers defensive unit today. Boogie Roberts, Eli Walker, Keith Gipson, Olive Sagapolu, Reuben Foster – the list goes on – they were spectacular.

LB Frank Ginda: Despite the loss, Frank Ginda had another remarkable outing. 13 tackles, 1 TFL, and 0.5 sacks keep Ginda in the DPOY conversation. Without a doubt, Frank will be getting some NFL looks and opportunities this offseason.

Post-Game Comments

We asked Pittsburgh Maulers DC Jarren Horton about the impact that Bryce Torneden has had this season, and what he’s brought to the unit as a leader:

Q: “Coach, Bryce Torneden had a great game today with 10 tackles, a TFL, that sack; what can you say about his performances through the course of this season, and what he’s done for the defense?”

A: “He’s a captain for a reason. The guy’s respected. He was All-USFL last year, and he’s a great football player. He plays nickel for us, so we ask a lot out of him. We sent him on pressures today, he covered, he helped Tez (Tezino) out on one of those interceptions with good coverage – he can do a lot of different things. He can wear a lot of hats for us. It’s my job to just allow him to make plays – put him in the best position to make those plays. Today, with those ten tackles and the sack…he played lights out.”

Final Thoughts

The Pittsburgh Maulers are now in a prime position to make a playoff run, believe it or not. With two wins over the Panthers, all they have to do is win next week – and they’re in. Ray Horton should be pleased with how resilient this team has been, despite everything they’ve faced.

Defensively, Pittsburgh continues to play like the best team in the league. Offensively, though, there is certainly room for improvement. Troy Williams did enough to secure a win, but red zone efficiency needs to see an uptick down the stretch.

The Michigan Panthers are in serious trouble. This team doesn’t look at all like a unit who can make any noise in the postseason. Mike Nolan’s conservative approach to things (such as continuing to play Josh Love despite his mistakes) have proven to be a back breaker. With one game left to play, Michigan needs quite a bit of help to make the playoffs.

Week nine of the USFL continues tomorrow, with the Houston Gamblers hosting the Birmingham Stallions at 2pm ET on NBC.

What are your thoughts on this game between the Pittsburgh Maulers and Michigan Panthers? Which USFL players impressed the most? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!