Maulers control destiny thanks to defense, special teams

CANTON, Ohio — After watching his Pittsburgh Maulers defense dominate all afternoon, Ray Horton was left almost speechless. They did everything he could have hoped they'd do in the biggest moment of their season 

And when it was over, and his defense had saved the Maulers' season by powering the way to a 19-7 win over the Michigan Panthers, the Maulers' head coach truly didn't have many words.

"Obviously to the eye test, the defense was … Wow!" Horton said. "I really want to give all these guys up here credit. I did nothing but watch. I had the best seat in the house to watch this performance. I have nothing to say, so I'm going to leave.

"I don't think the USFL is going to fine me."

There was no need for a fine because Horton was right to drop the mic like that: The play of the Maulers defense on Saturday afternoon was statement enough. In a game they absolutely needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Maulers (3-6) overwhelmed Panthers quarterback Josh Love in their game at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. They sacked Love four times and intercepted four of his passes.

If it wasn't for a desperate, 55-yard drive in the final minute, the Panthers (3-6) wouldn't have even topped 200 total yards.

The end result was that the Maulers snapped a three-game losing streak, and they now can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the New Jersey Generals (2-6) back here in Canton next Saturday afternoon.

And they really needed every bit of their defensive performance to get in that position. The Maulers offense struggled, totaling just 226 yards. Quarterback Troy Williams (14 of 24, 166 yards) was sacked six times. They scored a touchdown on their opening drive, thanks mostly to a 64-yard return of the opening kickoff by Josh Simmons that set up a 17-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Simmons three plays later.

Other than that, though, their whole game was about defense and special teams. They got a remarkable, 83-yard punt from Matt Mengel. They got a blocked punt from running back Madre London. And they got those four interceptions. The offense struggled so much, they only got four field goals from Chris Blewitt the rest of the way.

But the defense made sure that was enough.

"Lately we haven't been creating turnovers," said Maulers linebacker Kyohva Tezino, who had two of the four Pittsburgh interceptions. "This week at practice were just preaching ‘We've got to get turnovers. We have to put our offense in better position. We've just got to make plays.

"We did that, and you see the results."

The Maulers offense had so many problems that those four interceptions actually only directly resulted in one field goal. But it still kept tilting the field in Pittsburgh's favor and frustrating the Michigan offense. It also spoiled a pretty good day by the Michigan defense, which had six sacks of their own.

But Love (19 of 33, 233 yards) could only get one sustained drive going — a five-play, 73-yard drive to open the second half that ended when tight end Cole Hikutini got wide open for a 12-yard touchdown catch that pulled the Panthers within 13-7. Every other time he seemed to get something going, he ended up throwing the ball away.

"I thought the defense did a very good job," said Michigan coach Mike Nolan. "A lot of guys made plays in the ball game. They kept us in the game until the very end. We just weren't able to convert and get enough points to make that happen."

As for Love's performance, Nolan was careful not to completely blame him.

"The giveaways hurt us," Nolan said. "That's really all I have on it."

The giveaways were really devastating for a Michigan team that has now lost six of seven since its 2-0 start to the season, a slide that has sent it to the brink of elimination. The Panthers still have a shot at one of the two playoff spots in the North division, but they'll need help. Their destiny is no longer in their hands.

"Oh yeah, it's very frustrating," Nolan said. "The important thing is for our football team to stay together. These kind of things can turn."

The Maulers, meanwhile, are hoping things have finally turned for them, thanks to a defense, that not only wowed their head coach, but wowed his son, who is the defensive coordinator.

"I'm just up there calling plays," said Pittsburgh's assistant head coach, Jarren Horton. "The guys on the field are the ones executing. They're playing lights out right now."

"We've just got to keep going," Tezino added. "We can't get complacent at all. We know what kind of team we got. We've just got to keep going."

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.