Darrius Shepherd’s heroics lift Generals over Panthers
With their running game shut down, the Generals took to the air, finding a way to beat the Panthers, Eric D. Williams writes.
By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The New Jersey Generals are the top rushing team in the USFL.
However, with the Michigan Panthers slowing them down up front, the Generals turned to Darrius Shepherd and the passing game.
Shepherd finished with eight catches for 99 receiving yards, including the game-winner — a 17-yard touchdown on a fade route that gave the Generals a 25-23 win over the Panthers on Saturday at Protective Stadium.
Generals' Darrius Shepherd scores the game-winning TD
"I’m just proud of our team for finding a way to win," Generals head coach Mike Riley said. "It looked kind of bleak for a bit. I felt it on the sidelines. But when we needed to stop them, and we needed to make some plays offensively, we did it."
The USFL’s leading rusher entering Week 9, Darius Victor was slowed by a toe issue, totaling just 18 yards on seven carries. Trey Williams led the Generals with 62 yards on 11 carries.
After leading most of the game, New Jersey trailed by four points with 6:37 remaining after a 25-yard field goal by Cole Murphy. But Luis Perez engineered the decisive drive after a big return by Cam Echols-Luper put New Jersey near midfield (He also had an 18-yard reverse for a score).
On second-and-5 from Michigan’s 17-yard line, Shepherd converted to a go-route against press coverage, beating his man over the top for the score.
"When your number is called, you have to make plays," Shepherd said. "Coach [Riley] got us involved in the passing game today, gave us an opportunity to show what we can do."
Along with Shepherd, KaVontae Turpin continues to look like the most explosive player in the league, taking a 71-yard punt return for a score with just over 10 minutes left in the first half — the first punt return taken to the house this season in the USFL.
KaVontae Turpin takes it to the house
"Coach (Riley) told me at the beginning of this game that this will probably be the day that you get one," Turpin said. "So, I just told him I was going to be patient back there. I hit the hole one time and just back outside, just trying to be playmaker for the team, basically."
The Generals overcame two missed field goals and two missed extra points to improve to 8-1 on the year, winning their eighth straight game. The Panthers dropped to 1-7 and have lost six in a row.
The quarterback for the Pittsburgh Maulers for the first three games of the year, Josh Love started at quarterback for the Panthers. Michigan’s starting quarterbacks earlier this season — Paxton Lynch and Shea Patterson — were both unavailable. Lynch was inactive for the game, and Patterson, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, was waived a couple of weeks ago and is now a member of the New Orleans Breakers.
Love finished 12-for-21 for 168 passing yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. He was hit by Hercules Mata’afa and limped off the field with a right knee injury. Love was picked off by Trae Elston on the play.
Eastern Washington product Eric Barriere replaced Love in the lineup. Barriere played solid in his first USFL action, finishing 14-for-24 for 118 yards and a touchdown to Ishmael Hyman.
However, needing a field goal at the end of the game, Barriere was intercepted by Paris Ford, sealing the win for the Generals.
Joe Walker has played well for Michigan, finishing with seven receptions for 129 yards and two scores.
The Panthers were pretty beat up after this one, losing running back Cameron Scarlett (unspecified) and receiver Devin Ross (knee) due to injury. Top running back Reggie Corbin did not play because of an injury.
Michigan finished the game with just one healthy running back and quarterback available.
"This probably the one where I was most proud of our guys," Michigan head coach Jeff Fisher said. "It was kind of one of those ‘last man standing’ things."
Toby Johnson interception
New Jersey nose tackle Toby Johnson lived out a big-man dream against the Panthers — he got to show his athleticism by getting his big mitts on the football.
In the first quarter, Destiny Vaeao deflected a Love pass high in the air. A hustling Johnson tracked it down, making an impressive diving catch for the interception.
The Generals turned the miscue into points when Austin Jones converted a 36-yard field goal.
Tre Williams update
Fisher provided some good news on injured defensive lineman Tre Williams.
In Michigan’s loss to the Philadelphia Stars last week, Williams lay motionless on the field for several minutes before being taken off the field on a backboard and stretcher and transported to the University of Alabama-Birmingham medical center.
However, Fisher said Williams is out of the hospital and was on the sidelines watching his teammates play on Sunday. Fisher said there’s even a chance that Williams plays in Michigan’s final game next week.
"Tre’s doing remarkably well," Fisher said. "We haven’t ruled him out of the final game, I’m really happy to say. The Good Lord was listening to our prayers because that was a great incident of answered prayer there. It was a scary deal.
"He’s good. He was around his teammates this week. He’s got some mobility. It’s a medical clearance thing. But for me to be able to say he’s got a chance to play two weeks after what we endured last week, that’s pretty good."
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.