CANTON, Ohio — "We have a little saying right now," Ray Horton told FOX Sports on Saturday, sporting a grin from ear to ear on Saturday in the hallways of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. "Make the rest of your season the best of your season. And guess what? We’re playing our best ball right now. In that case, some may say, ‘shouldn’t have let them in!"
Well, the Pittsburgh Maulers are in the USFL playoffs, having put together as complete a performance as they have all season to clinch a spot in next weekend's North Division Championship. Behind their gutsy defense, which allowed seven or fewer points for the second consecutive week, Pittsburgh avenged a 20-3 loss to New Jersey in Week 2 by eliminating the Generals from postseason contention with a 26-6 blowout victory.
Pittsburgh’s defense stole the show in a second consecutive must-win game. After making Josh Love's life a nightmare a week ago, they harassed De’Andre Johnson into throwing his only two interceptions of the season, sacking him twice and allowing him to complete only 12 of his 27 pass attempts.
"We’re Maulers. We’re going to maul," defensive end Nasir Player said following the win. "That’s what we’re going to do every play."
Pittsburgh’s stout linebacker corps had another tremendous performance, with USFL tackling leader Kyahva Tezino notching seven tackles to boost his season total to 94, while Reuben Foster matched him with seven of his own. In total, the Maulers tallied five tackles for loss, with defensive end Vaughn Taylor Jr. collecting a pair.
The turning point
While the Maulers were dictating the game, halfway through the third quarter, the Generals had the ball and drove into Pittsburgh territory at the 46-yard line. After a holding penalty wiped out a conversion and created a third-and-12, the game shifted.
Johnson looking in the opposite direction, Player came around the horn to force a fumble as he threw. Pittsburgh strong safety Eli Walker picked up the fluttering football and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown, creating the separation that the Maulers needed and pushing their lead to 16-6.
After a six-play drive stalled due to a fumble that went behind Johnson, Troy Williams continued a highly efficient day running the Pittsburgh offense, completing three straight passes for 31 yards, highlighted by a 17-yard catch and run by Isiah Hennie. He led the way for the Pittsburgh receiving corps with six receptions for 48 yards. While the drive stalled, a Chris Blewitt field goal pushed the lead to 13.
After an ensuing three-and-out by the relentless Maulers defense, that ended any hope one would have had on the Generals' side, causing a taxed defense to head back out to the field trailing by 13. Following just a 21-yard punt by Brock Miller, Pittsburgh set up shop at the Generals' 37-yard line. A 12-yard run by Garrett Groshek on a third-and-5 pushed the Maulers into the red zone, with a 15-yard pass interference penalty committed in the end zone resulting in Pittsburgh getting inside the 5-yard line. Former Michigan State and Tennessee running back Madre London took care of things from there, running four yards into the end zone for his first career USFL touchdown to make it 26-9, all but putting the game away with eight minutes on the clock.
The efficiency of Troy Williams
The 28-year-old Williams, a former Pac-12 quarterback at Washington and Utah, prides himself on not making mistakes. On Saturday, he did more than that, going 17-for-25 in the air with his sixth passing touchdown of the season as he found Hennie on the opening drive. He showed off his wheels in the process, rushing six times for 40 yards. If not for his production, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have found itself with a 9-6 lead through the halfway point of the third quarter.
"It’s all about being me and playing within myself," Williams said after the win. "When you have guys on defense who have been lights out all year, it helps us. It’s building confidence on our side right now. We know they’re (the defense) going to do their job. That just tells us if we do what we’re supposed to, we’re going to come out with the win."
"Troy doesn’t turn the ball over," Horton said. "You play good defense and you don’t turn the ball over, you’re going to be in every game."
An under-the-radar moment
With just 2:10 left in the first half and the Maulers up 6-3, Horton elected to have kicker Blewitt try a 58-yard field goal from the New Jersey 41. Long snapper Riley Lovingood sent the snap high, sending the ball back 34 yards before Blewitt eventually hopped on it.
The short drive was gift-wrapped for New Jersey to capitalize and take the lead heading into the locker room. But a four-yard loss by Darius Victor set the tone for a drive that did nothing. The Generals got three points, but Horton said it: "That felt like a total victory for us."
The Maulers capitalized on great field position off a squib kick, taking over the ensuing drive at their own 48 with 1:35 left in the half and getting that field goal right back to take the three-point lead into the break.
"They have an outstanding defensive front," Generals head coach Mike Riley said following the loss and conclusion of New Jersey’s season. "The pressure they were getting and the coverage they played, it’s really smart what they do. They gave us nothing easy."
Looking ahead for the Maulers, they’ll certainly be prepared for another win-or-go-home game as Pittsburgh tries to clinch a spot in the USFL Championship Game (Saturday, July 1, 8 p.m. ET on NBC).
"Our guys have been playing for the playoffs for a while," Horton said. "We put ourselves behind the 8-ball with the 0-2 start, but that meant we had to get into playoff mode. The guys have embraced that pressure."
"Because of us, we didn’t have a margin of error. We’ve come together as a result."
And because of all of that, the Maulers are postseason bound.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @John_Fanta.