After a lackluster 2022 campaign where the team went 1-9, the Pittsburgh Maulers looked to turn a new page on Sunday night. In their 2023 season opener against the New Orleans Breakers, the Maulers didn’t pull any punches. Still, it wasn’t enough as they dropped their first game of the new season, 22-15.
On the opening kickoff, Pittsburgh started with a little “razzle dazzle.” After fielding the kick, Trey Walker lateraled the ball to Bailey Gaither who ran for a 41-yard return.
With the ball already on the Breakers side of the field, Walker came up big again with a toe-tapping grab to put his team in field goal position, which the kicker Nathan Hierlihy converted after the Maulers drive stalled at New Orleans 19-yard line.
The Breakers responded with a long, nine-play, five-minute drive that had the team on Pittsburgh’s three-yard line. Boogie Roberts ended any hopes of a potential touchdown for New Orleans, sacking McLeod Bethel-Thompson and forcing a field goal attempt.
With the game knotted at three apiece, the Maulers momentum came to a halt going three-and-out on their next possession. The Breakers once again would piece together a long drive ultimately yielding the same results as before with a field goal giving them a 6-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Both teams would struggle to get anything going offensively in the second quarter, so the Maulers defense decided to pick up the slack. Pinned on his own one-yard line, Breakers running back Anthony Jones learned why Maulers linebacker Reuben Foster was a first round pick in the NFL. Foster stripped the ball from Jones and it was scooped up by teammate Kyahva Tezino who scored the first touchdown of the season for Pittsburgh. The team would fail to convert on a two-point conversion attempt making the score 9-6.
The Breakers responded in the final two minutes of the half tying the game with another field goal. The Maulers actually attempted a field goal of their own before half thanks to a big 31-yard run from Duane Gary, but the kick was blocked.
Rinse and repeat for New Orleans who opened the third quarter with another commanding five-minute plus drive, but once again Pittsburgh pinned their ears back and forced a field goal.
If you have Breakers kicker Matt Coghlin in USFL fantasy football, congratulations, you won this week. He kicked another field goal on New Orleans’ next drive, extending his team’s lead to 15-9 and giving him five field goals and tying the USFL record for most in a game.
Into the fourth quarter, and the Pittsburgh Maulers come up just one yard short from the endzone. An 11-play, five-minute drive that was set up by another great return saw the team march all the way to the Breakers one-yard line, but the team couldn’t break through, turning it over on downs.
But the Maulers would quickly make lemonade out of lemons. After a brief Breakers drive following their stop, New Orleans punted the ball to the dangerous Isiah Hennie who returned it for a 77-yard touchdown, which is the longest in USFL history. An extra point away from taking a one-point lead and, OOPS! Hierlihy misses the kick! The game remained tied at 15 with 4:32 left.
After nearly 59 minutes of no offensive touchdowns, the Breakers finally draw blood when they need it most. Marching down the field in just seven plays, Bethel-Thompson goes 4-4 capping off the drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to Jones to put the team up 22-15.
1:03 on the clock and the Maulers turned back into the Pumpkins of last season. A confusing switch at quarterback for the last drive of the game did not yield the result Pittsburgh coach Ray Horton wanted with the team mismanaging the clock, leading to an ugly turnover on downs, a 22-15 loss and 0-1 start.
The team will look to bounce-back next Sunday against the New Jersey Generals.