MEMPHIS — Todd Haley wasted no time thanking the city of Memphis for supporting his team and pro football in their city.
After beginning the season 0-3 and 0-2 at home, the Showboats have won three consecutive games, moving into a tie with Houston for the USFL's longest active winning streak with their first shutout win this season.
In fact, the Showboats' 22-0 win against the Pittsburgh Maulers marked their first shutout since styling on the Jacksonville Bulls, 31-0, on June 15, 1985, and was just their second in franchise history.
But the victory against the Maulers at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium was their first in front of home fans this season.
"Understanding what pro football means to Memphis, we won our first couple games on the road, but we weren't able to do it here," Haley said. "That was a big thing. It was great to have the fans out there. We talked about it all week about taking our field. And that's a special thing when you have a home field that you practice on. Every week you know the fans are gonna come out to support us. So that was a big thing for us to go out there and take our field. And we took it over today, which was great. It's not the championship by any means, but it was another big step for us as a team."
No, it's not a championship, but the win squarely puts the Showboats in contention for a playoff spot in the South Division. But it wasn’t Haley’s offense that earned the win as much as it was defensive coordinator Carnell Lake’s defense and Frank Gansz’s special teams.
Memphis’ defense continued to show good form. The Showboats held the Maulers to just 127 total yards and 2-for-5 on third down. It sacked quarterback Troy Williams twice, tackled the ball carrier in the backfield three times, forced an interception and held the Maulers to zero points.
And then there was the special teams.
It was nearly 10 years ago that Auburn defensive back Chris Davis made one of the most famous plays in college football history, returning a missed 57-yard field goal attempt for a TD at the end of regulation in a 34-28 win against No. 1 Alabama, a result that helped vault the Tigers into the national title game.
On Saturday, another former Tiger — former LSU national champion Derrick Dillon — performed a similar feat. Dillon showed off his 4.29 40-yard dash speed when he returned the opening kickoff to the Maulers' 13-yard line. The Showboats managed to earn three points from that opening possession.
Late in the half, Pittsburgh coach Ray Horton opted to give kicker Chris Blewitt an opportunity to get Pittsburgh on the board with a 59-yard field attempt. Haley countered by placing Dillon back in the end zone, just in case the kick fell short, giving Gansz credit for seeing the opportunity for a momentum-changing play.
"[Gansz] doesn't leave a stone unturned," Haley said. "That's something that we practiced yesterday in our little walkthrough. We do it every week at the end of the week. If (the opposing team) is in a long field goal situation, we put, hopefully, our fastest guy back there. In this case, it was Derrick."
When Blewitt missed the kick wide right, it looked to be going out of bounds. But Dillon caught the ball as it was sailing over his head — lifting his heels to keep them off the end line — and set about running it back — 109 yards for the longest return in USFL history.
And, yes, Dillon was mindful not to step out of bounds and showed athleticism enough to take one hit, spin out of it and then make a path to the end zone.
"When I caught it, I looked down to make sure I didn’t step out before I took off," he said. "I took the hit and I spun out of it. Then I saw everybody blocking their guys, and I said just hold it for a little longer, and I knew I was going to score."
Dillon played football in Baton Rouge for six years. As a Bayou Bengal, he caught 51 passes for 634 yards with four TDs in his career.
In this game, he accounted for 219 total yards and a TD.
Even after laying down one of the fastest 40-yard dashes at the 2020 NFL Combine, he did not get selected in the draft. He spent most of the 2021 season as a member of the New York Giants practice squad.
He was selected in the 15th round of the 2022 USFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Bandits, amassing 28 catches for 386 receiving yards with four TDS, earning the chance to remain on the team with the franchise’s move to Memphis.
His record-breaking return for a score was his first TD of the season.
After a missed extra point from kicker Alex Kessman, the Showboats led 19-0 at the start of the third quarter and stretched that lead to 22 before the game ended in large part due to their running game.
The Showboats rushed for 97 yards in the win against the league’s best rush defense after rushing for just 35 in their win against the New Orleans Breakers in Week 5.
With their steady performance offensively and their outstanding defense over the past three weeks, the Showboats are one of the hottest teams in the league at the start of the second half of the regular season.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.