Pittsburgh Maulers Punch Championship Ticket In USFL Overtime Thriller

Pittsburgh Maulers Punch Championship Ticket In USFL Overtime Thriller

The USFL North Division Championship was one to remember, as the Pittsburgh Maulers took down the Michigan Panthers in what was one of the greatest spring football games to date.

Heading into this affair, Michigan and Pittsburgh held 4-6 records. The Maulers had won both season matchups, dominating Michigan twice. However, the Panthers had a trick up their sleeve this time around, with EJ Perry at the helm.

Let’s take a look at what happened, as it was quite entertaining from start to finish.

First Quarter

The Michigan Panthers received the opening kickoff, and got right to work. They took plenty of time off the clock, with a long drive that saw several opportunities to score. Eventually, Cole Murphy knocked through a field goal, and the Panthers took a 3-0 lead.

It was a similar story for the Pittsburgh Maulers. Their first possession was a bit lengthy as well, capped off by a 45 yard field goal from Chris Blewitt.

Heading into the second period, things were tied up at three a piece.

Second Quarter

It was a slugfest in the early goings of this affair, which was no surprise. Both of these defenses are two of the best in the USFL, so it was expected for the offenses to take some time in getting into their respective rhythms.

Pittsburgh’s unit would make a big-time play in the early second quarter. Olive Sagapolu forced a fumble on Reggie Corbin, and Terry Beckner recovered for the Maulers.

This put the team in excellent field position, and they capitalized. Just a few plays later, Garrett Groshek put the Maulers in front 10-3.

Michigan continued to be careless with the football. After a decent gain, Cole Hikutini fumbled, and Pittsburgh took over once again as Kyahva Tezino recovered.

Despite forcing a punt, the Panthers could not catch a break. A deep ball intended for Joe Walker was intercepted by Arnold Tarpley, which set Pittsburgh up in a position to score before the half.

However, poor time management resulted in a missed opportunity. Chris Blewitt was frozen by Mike Nolan who used his final timeout, which resulted in an attempt that was no good the second time around.

Heading into halftime, the Pittsburgh Maulers led 10-3.

Third Quarter

Things got pretty interesting in the third quarter. On Pittsburgh’s opening drive, they decided to go for it on 4th and 1. A run up the middle from Madre London went nowhere, and Michigan took over on downs.

The Panthers capitalized quickly. They seamlessly marched down the field, led by EJ Perry who looked much more comfortable in the second half. Perry eventually ran it in from a few yards out, and the game was tied at 10.

Pittsburgh had to punt, as momentum had swung completely in Michigan’s direction. On the first play of their next drive, EJ Perry dropped a dime to Marcus Simms deep, who took it to the end zone. Just like that, the Michigan Panthers led 17-10.

Heading into the fourth quarter, Michigan had a seven point advantage. However, Pittsburgh was marching, and would eventually turn the tide.

Fourth Quarter

A lengthy possession paid off in dividends, as Bailey Gaither ran it in himself to tie the game at 17. The fourth quarter was extremely long, with so much happening in such a small amount of time.

Pittsburgh got the ball back, but once again turned it over on downs as Frank Ginda made an outstanding stop at midfield. After Michigan got into scoring position, though, Cole Murphy missed a 52 yard field goal, giving the Maulers great field position.

Chris Blewitt has been one of the most consistent kickers in the USFL, and proved that tonight. With a lot on the line in the late fourth quarter, he crushed a 59 yard attempt to put the Pittsburgh Maulers in front 20-17.

Michigan would respond efficiently. EJ Perry came out swinging, finding Trey Quinn down the sidelines who waltzed in for the score. With two minutes left, the Panthers held a four point lead.

Troy Williams had a fantastic night for the Maulers, and put the team on his back down the stretch. After getting bailed out by a pass interference call on Josh Butler, Williams found Ishmael Hyman for the go-ahead touchdown with less than 50 seconds to go.

This play has quite the storyline behind it. Hyman was released by the Panthers midseason, and there was certainly some bad blood between him and the organization.

If you thought the game was over at this point, think again. EJ Perry masterfully marched the team into field goal range, making smart decisions with the football. Cole Murphy hit a 47 yard field goal as time expired, sending us into the first USFL playoff overtime affair in modern league history.

 

Over Time

On Pittsburgh’s first two point try, Troy Williams found Mason Stokke to put the team up two. While Michigan appeared to succeed on their attempt, it was eventually overruled by Mike Pereira.

Troy Williams ran it in on their second two point attempt, and the Maulers took a 31-27 lead.

Michigan needed to score, in a do or die situation. However, in fitting manner, Jarren Horton’s defense stepped up to the plate. Olive Sagapolu batted the ball at the line of scrimmage, which ended the game – sending the Pittsburgh Maulers to the USFL Championship.

Ray Horton’s Maulers would hold on for the thrilling victory, 31-27 over the Michigan Panthers.

Standout Playmakers

QB Troy Williams: Williams has been the heart and soul of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2023. Since taking over as the starting QB in week three, Troy has led the team in passing – and rushing. Against Michigan, he posted 239 total yards and a couple of scores (including over time) to push this team to the Championship.

WR Isiah Hennie: Hennie-where, Hennie-time, Hennie-place. Isiah does it all. His six catches for 83 yards were vital tonight, leading the team as a USFL veteran. Hennie does so many little things for the Maulers, and has been a key piece to this Championship run.

LB Kyahva Tezino: The defensive player of the year candidate was outstanding tonight. He led Jarren Horton’s defense with ten tackles, dominating up front as he always does.

S Arnold Tarpley III: Tarpley is one of the best defensive players in the USFL. His craft has improved since joining the league a year ago, and put his talents on full display in the playoffs. Tarpley posted five tackles, an interception, and two PD in a gutsy win over Michigan.

DT Olive Sagapolu: Olive Sagapolu has done quite a bit for Pittsburgh in the trenches, and made his mark tonight. His forced fumble – and game winning bat of the ball – pushed the Maulers to victory. He’s been excellent in 2023, feeding off the success of a ferocious defensive line.

Michigan Panthers

QB EJ Perry: Despite the loss, EJ Perry was outstanding tonight. In just his second start for Michigan, he posted 370 passing yards, alongside three total touchdowns. His final two quarters were remarkable, unleashing multiple deep balls with intricate accuracy. While the USFL season is over, Perry might have earned an NFL look simply based off of this performance.

WR Trey Quinn: Trey Quinn left it all on the field for Michigan. He recorded five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, showing up when it mattered most. While it was a tough ending to the year, Quinn performed exceptionally well week in and week out.

LB Frank Ginda: For one final time this season, Frank Ginda is a standout playmaker in one of these writeups. The Tank was on a mission tonight, leading the Panthers with 11 tackles, two TFL, and a sack. His All-USFL campaign was remarkable this year, and one should expect to see him on an NFL roster sooner than later.

Post-Game Comments

Pittsburgh Maulers HC Ray Horton spoke about what transpired as his team locked down a Championship berth:

Wow. Overtime Thriller. Ebbs and flow. We looked good, then they looked good…we looked good at the end, so that’s what has us sitting up here. I’m not used to seeing a statistics sheet where the other offense won – they beat us on that side of the ball. But, the thing that kept us here is going three of four in the red zone. That’s been an achilles heel for us all year long, and hopefully this is a Genesis of great things to come for the offense. They grew up in a do or die situation, and this young man (Troy) right here took this team all the way down the field for the win. I am just so excited for these young men, and I want to thank them for having faith in me this season.

Michigan Panthers HC Mike Nolan had this to say after the game:

Congratulations to our opponent, Pittsburgh, they won a very tight and close game. Good football team, congratulations to them. As far as our football team, we’re disappointed in the loss. Thought there was a lot of solid football played despite some of the penalties at the end. I was disappointed that we got penalized a bit more than we would have hoped, but we got the big eye in the sky making it right and I’ve got to trust it.

Final Thoughts

What an unbelievable way to kick off the USFL playoffs. While it was a slower start, this game picked up quickly, and turned out to be electrifying in the second half.

Ray Horton and the Pittsburgh Maulers deserve a ton of credit. After being counted out by so many before the season – and during the season – they now sit at the top of the North, ready to chase a USFL title.

It’s a tough ending for the Michigan Panthers. However, the team should be proud of what they accomplished this year, finding a way to make the postseason. Mike Nolan made the right call down the stretch with EJ Perry, which saved the season during its final breath.

The USFL postseason continues tomorrow, with the Birmingham Stallions hosting the New Orleans Breakers at 7pm ET on FOX.

What are your thoughts on this USFL matchup 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!

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