The Pittsburgh Maulers far and away played their best game of the season on Saturday against the Michigan Panthers. The game was filled with highlight plays, and the Maulers’ defense was its usual stout self, which translated into a much-needed 24-7 win.
But the Maulers didn’t quite start out the way they wanted to, running just five plays before punting the ball to the dangerous Ishmael Hyman, who returned the ball to Pittsburgh’s 26-yard line.
It wouldn’t take long for the Panthers to score from there as quarterback Josh Love found tight end Cole Hikutini for a touchdown.
Facing a 7-0 early deficit, quarterback Troy Williams tried to get something going, but the Panthers’ defense didn’t give an inch. On the third play of the drive, Williams was intercepted by linebacker Frank Ginda, giving the ball back to Michigan.
The Pittsburgh defense stiffened on the Panthers drive forcing a quick third-and-out for the team.
The Maulers’ offense began to get into a rhythm the next drive. A deep, high-arching pass from Williams found Bailey Gaither along the sidelines for a 34-yard gain to get the team deep into Michigan territory. Next, Pittsburgh dialed up a screen to running back Garrett Groshek, which went for 19 more yards. Williams capped off his impressive drive with a five-yard touchdown pass to fullback Mason Stokke to knot the game at seven.
The Panthers looked to be getting something going on offense after a deep pass from Love found Trey Quinn, but immediately after the gain running back Reggie Corbin fumbled giving the ball back to the Maulers. The fumble was forced by defensive tackle Taylor Beckner.
Williams continued to settle into the game in the next series, opening up with a chunk throw of 28 yards to Isiah Hennie. Just three plays later Williams once again found Hennie and this time he would find paydirt making the score 14-7 in favor of the Maulers.
Corbin wasted no time in correcting his mistake from the previous drive returning the kickoff all the way to Pittsburgh’s 38-yard line. Luckily, the Maulers’ defense was up to the task. A brief drive by the Panthers saw Love push the ball downfield into double coverage where former Steeler Mark Gilbert was waiting. He intercepted the pass in the end zone giving him his second pick in as many games.
An eight-play drive from the Maulers looked promising at the start but stalled when Michigan defensive end Breeland Speaks was able to get to Williams for a third-down sack.
A brief six-play drive followed but bore no fruit for the Panthers, forcing them to punt the ball away with just over a minute left in the half. Despite having two timeouts, the Maulers curiously then allowed the time to expire during their drive taking the game to halftime.
The Panthers started the second half with the ball and a new quarterback in Carson Strong, but they couldn’t do anything with it, punting the ball back to the Maulers after just four plays. Not much of a difference when the Maulers had the ball, going three-and-out.
Strong still couldn’t get going in the following drive with Pittsburgh sacking the quarterback on an important third-and-long to force yet another punt.
Finally some signs of life for either team’s offense in the second half as the Maulers orchestrated a long, nine-play, 75 yard drive that lasted 4:10. The drive featured possibly the best catch all season in the USFL as Gaither made a jaw-dropping, one-handed catch down the sideline for a 43-yard gain. Pittsburgh would knock on the door of the end zone but stalled out on the four-yard line. Kicker Chris Blewitt then converted on a chip shot field goal to give the Maulers a 10-point lead.
The Panthers then strung together a nice little drive that saw them right around midfield, but once again the Pittsburgh defense flexed their muscles getting their fourth turnover of the game. Strong found Joe Walker on what would have been a 10-yard gain, but linebacker Kyahva Tezino forced a fumble giving the ball back to the Maulers in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh couldn’t capitalize on the good field position going three-and-out.
Strong’s best drive since replacing Love then followed as connected on two first-down throws, but it didn’t matter. The Pittsburgh defensive front pinned their ears back and sacked Strong on consecutive plays forcing another punt.
Michigan wouldn’t need to wait long until they had another shot with the ball as Williams fumbled on the first play of the possession giving the ball back to the Panthers.
With the ball at the Pittsburgh 24-yard line, Michigan was in prime position to score and get themselves back into the game, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, the Maulers came through with another turnover, this time coming on an interception from Arnold Tarpley who nearly returned the ball for a pick-six.
It would only take Pittsburgh three plays to turn the interception into points with Troy Williams gliding into the end zone for an easy 13-yard rushing touchdown. The Maulers lead was then 24-7 with just over three minutes left.
The Panthers following drive wasn’t any more fruitful than the ones before as they turned the ball over on downs, giving it back to the Maulers. Pittsburgh was able to run the clock down to just 12 seconds before giving it back to Michigan, which kneeled on the ball and accepted the loss.
The win puts the Maulers at 2-3 on the season as they now shift their focus to the Memphis Showboats next week.