Maulers coach defiant in defeat, declares team will become 'a force' in USFL

CANTON, Ohio — Still seething after a disappointing, 28-12 setback to the Birmingham Stallions in Saturday's USFL Championship Game, Ray Horton is not someone who believes in moral victories.

However, the Pittsburgh Maulers head coach believes his team is headed for big things next season.

"This team is going to be back in this game next year," Horton predicted. "Because we’re going to be better than we were this year. And I don’t know where Skip (Birmingham head coach Skip Holtz) is but tell him his seat is going to be hot because we’re coming after him."

For three quarters, Horton’s Maulers went toe-to-toe with the best the USFL had to offer over the last two seasons. 

Pittsburgh used a ball-control offense to manage the game and play keep away from Birmingham’s high-powered offense. Pittsburgh finished with 33:51-26:09 advantage in time of possession.

The Maulers kept the ball for 9:33 on a 16-play, 60-yard opening drive, settling for a Chris Blewitt 37-yard field goal and an early 3-0 lead.

However, the Maulers could not find the end zone the entire game, settling for four Blewitt field goals. Pittsburgh went 0-for-2 in the red zone after finishing a league-worst 29.7% red zone conversion rate during the regular season.

"We’ve got to be more dynamic, more scoring plays," Horton said when asked what plans he has in store for improving a scuffling offense during the offseason. "It’s simple. You’ve got to score to win, and I’m not talking three points."

Even though he finished with a game-high 13 tackles, Maulers linebacker Kyahva Tezino said he must get better in pass coverage. Tezino said two of the three touchdown catches made by Deon Cain — the USFL Championship Game MVP — were his responsibility.

And while Tezino and his teammates embraced the underdog role, they also felt a tinge of disrespect from observers of the league. 

"I feel like a lot of people felt like we didn’t deserve to be here," Tezino said. "And that's fine, but we did. We might not have played our best game, but I promise you no other team in the North was better than us, and we proved it." 

Horton rightly pointed to the turning point of the game occurring with 47 seconds left in the third quarter and his team trailing 21-12.

The Maulers managed to force Birmingham quarterback Alex McGough to scramble with his team driving on third-and-12 from Pittsburgh’s 12-yard line.

Maulers linebacker Reuben Foster popped the ball loose from McGough. Defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu scooped it up and rumbled toward the end zone. With Birmingham players gaining on him, Sagapolu handed the ball to Eli Walker, who took it the rest of the way for the score.

However, after a review of the play, Sagapolu was called to have handed the ball forward, so the ball came back to Birmingham’s 33-yard line. 

The Maulers could not turn Birmingham’s miscue into points, as Blewitt missed a 49-yard field goal wide left, his only miss of the evening.

"That was the play of the game," Horton said. "That changed all of the momentum to them. The score would have been a two or three-point game at that point, and got us right back in. But that didn’t happen. So, we take full responsibility that we didn’t win that game, period." 

Later with 7:26 left in the fourth quarter with his team still in a one-possession game, Horton chose to go for it on fourth-and-8 from Pittsburgh’s own 40-yard line.

Quarterback Troy Williams failed to connect with Bailey Gaither down the middle of the field and the Maulers turned it over on downs.

Two plays later, McGough connected with Cain for a 40-yard touchdown pass to essentially put the game away.

"We needed to score," Horton said about his decision to go for it, instead of punting and leaning on his defense. "We weren’t going to punt the rest of the game, period. We were going to go for it every time. We had to score. We weren’t scoring, and we had to score. We were in desperation mode at that point." 

While the game didn’t go the way he wanted, Horton did turn around a team that finished with the worst record in the USFL last season at 1-9, leading them to the championship game a year later. 

"We’re not the laughingstocks of the league anymore," Horton said. "This is a team that’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. On defense, it already is. And on offense, we’ll fix it, and we’ll get better.

"This team is going to be one of the best teams in the league. It’s going to be like the Starship Enterprise. This is going to be one of the shining franchises in the league because this team is going to get better." 

Eric D. Williams is an NFL writer for FOX Sports. He 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.