The San Jose State product finished an impressive 18-of-20 passing for 215 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Panthers ran away from the Houston Gamblers in the second half for a 29-13 victory at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
It was the USFL season opener for both teams.
"I just stuck to the game plan," a stoic Love said after the game. "Trusting what was called, trusting the guys around me, and putting the offense in best position possible to succeed."
Michigan trailed 13-9 at halftime but scored 20 answered points in the second half for the win. Panthers receiver Joe Walker finished with a game-high 105 receiving yards on six receptions, including a 34-yard catch on a deep ball for the final score of the game.
The Gamblers moved the ball well between the 20-yard lines, but Houston turned it over four times. The Panthers turned those miscues into 14 points.
Running back Stevie Scott II paced the Panthers on the ground with 67 rushing yards on 12 carries, including a 1-yard run for a score.
The Panthers played quick and used tempo to keep Houston’s defense off-balance most of the game, with Love finding success hitting receivers like Walker, Ishmael Hyman and Trey Quinn on in-breaking routes.
Defensive end Breeland Speaks led the charge defensively for the Panthers, finishing with seven combined tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. Speaks’ big day included a game-sealing sack on Houston’s final drive of the game by corralling Houston athletic quarterback Kenji Bahar.
Speaks said Michigan’s strategy defensively included keeping Bahar contained in the pocket and not letting him scramble to his right.
"It was a great day," Speaks said. "We just followed the game plan. Coach (Mike Nolan) drew up some stuff. In the second half, we started bringing a little more pressure. And I just so happened to make a few plays."
Special teams miscues and defensive penalties tilted the game in Houston’s favor in the first half. With Houston trailing 9-6, Walker muffed a punt, and Houston cornerback Jeremiah Johnson recovered on the Panthers’ 17-yard line.
On the same drive, the Gamblers also benefited from a defensive pass interference penalty on safety Cory Rahman while defending Houston receiver Teo Redding in the end zone. Rahman suffered an Achilles injury on the play and did not return.
Running back T.J. Pledger turned that penalty into points, scoring his second touchdown of the game from 2 yards out and giving the Gamblers a 13-9 lead at halftime.
He can get an up-close view from his father, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson.
The Jaguars head coach was at the stadium in Memphis to watch his son play. The younger Pederson did not disappoint, leading the Gamblers in receiving with two receptions for 23 yards on three targets.
An undrafted rookie out of Louisiana-Monroe two years ago, Pederson spent time with the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs, and is looking to land a job in the NFL.
"This is a great opportunity for all of these players to really not only showcase their talent but also get on tape," Pederson said NBC Sports. "That’s one thing I really encouraged my son to do, just get on tape and get meaningful reps.
"That’s what all of these guys are doing because one day they are trying to get back to the NFL if they can."
Curtis Johnson and Mike Nolan reunited
Member of the same coaching staff in New Orleans while Sean Payton served as the head coach there, Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson and Panthers head coach Mike Nolan coached against each other for the first time in their professional coaching careers.
Nolan said the two didn’t talk much leading up to Sunday’s contest. But now that the Panthers do not play the Gamblers again this season, they’ll talk more, like they the two did when they were both on the Saints coaching staff.
"There’s actually some pleasure and fun to go up against somebody you know," Nolan said. "It’s always fun to compete. But I really have tremendous respect for CJ. He’s a great coach, a great person. More than anything, it was fun to see him before the game. We don’t play them again, so I’m sure we’ll communicate even more because of that."
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.
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