Possessing the best defense in the USFL has its perks, and that certainly paid off for the Pittsburgh Maulers in a 31-27 shootout overtime victory to advance to the USFL Championship game.
The Maulers and Michigan Panthers went back-and-forth down the stretch of the final quarter and with a 47-yard field goal by Cole Murphy, the Panthers tied the game at the end of regulation to send it into overtime.
With both teams having three possible opportunities from the two-yard line to score in overtime, Troy Williams and the Maulers cashed in on the first two attempts as Williams hit tight end Mason Stokke and then subsequently wheeled into the end zone on a quarterback keeper for the second score.
As the Maulers’ offense did their fair share, the defense held its own as Panthers’ running back Stevie Scott III fumbled just inches from the goal line on the first try. Then, in a must score situation, E.J Perry dropped back for the Panthers and let a pass go. However, it was Olive Sagapolu, with his back to the play, managed to get the back of his left hand on the ball to lift the Maulers to a North Division Championship.
Sagapolu was a key factor in the victory for the Maulers as he also forced a fumble that the Maulers eventually took advantage of with a two-yard touchdown on the ground by Garrett Groshek.
Michigan went on to turnover the ball on subsequent possessions to close out the first half. Perry connected with Cole Hikutini, but after breaking a tackle with green grass in front of him, he lost the ball, which allowed Kyahva Tezino to pounce on it.
On the second play of the following drive, Perry elected to throw it down the sideline but Arnold Tarpley III flew in to intercept the ball with 56 seconds to go in the half.
The Maulers could have easily pulled away, but instead they kept it interesting and left the door open for the Panthers to jump into the lead as the roles were reversed in the third quarter.
After Perry scampered into the end zone for a six-yard run to get the Panthers their first touchdown of the game, he would unleash a 72-yard bomb for the longest play of the game to Marcus Simms on a deep post route.
Offensively for the Maulers, it was not a matter of splash plays, but small chunk plays and key connections by Williams. The Maulers knotted the game at 17-17 with a Bailey Gaither four-yard rushing touchdown.
Throughout the duration of the first three quarters, it was a defensive battle as expected, but the energy picked up in the final minutes.
Pittsburgh kicker Chris Blewitt stepped in to give the Maulers the lead with 3:16 left to avenge an earlier missed field goal as he nailed a 59-yard kick – the longest in the USFL this season.
Not too long thereafter, Perry and the Panthers hit their second big play of the night as Trey Quinn blew past the Pittsburgh defense after hauling in a pass on the way to a 55-yard touchdown.
With 2:12 left in the final quarter, the Pittsburgh Maulers stared defeat right in the face. The Maulers then turned to quarterback Troy Williams and the Maulers’ offense to put together a drive that came down to a 4th-and-goal.
Williams sat poised in the pocket and hit wide receiver Ishmael Hyman on a quick slant for a seven-yard strike to put the Maulers up 27-24. Williams finished the day completing 23 of 40 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan had one final gasp and they found a way to tie the game and force overtime off of the 47-yard field goal by Murphy.
Despite the Maulers defense looking vulnerable in the second half, they pulled themselves back in at the right moment in overtime to punch their ticket to the USFL title game.
The Maulers will now await the winner of Sunday’s contest between the New Orleans Breakers and Birmingham Stallions. The USFL title game is set for next Saturday, July 1 in Canton, Ohio.