Maulers revel in turnaround as they edge Panthers to earn shot at USFL title

CANTON, Ohio — Still smiling from a jubilant locker room celebration after a thrilling, 31-27 overtime victory over the Michigan Panthers on Saturday evening at Tom Benson Memorial Stadium, last year’s last-place finish seemed like a distant memory for the Pittsburgh Maulers.

But Pittsburgh linebacker Kyahva Tezino hadn't forgotten.

"We’ve been through so much as a team," Tezino said. "We went from 1-9 last year to being in the championship game. We had people laughing at us, people all on Twitter talking. … Us that were here last year, we still all remember that stuff. We’re just so blessed to be in this position right now. And we definitely won’t take it for granted." 

[The biggest worst-to-first turnarounds in recent sports history]

In what was expected to be a defensive battle for the USFL North division title, the offenses took over in the second half, with Pittsburgh quarterback Troy Williams willing his team to victory by helping Pittsburgh’s offense execute in crunch time.

The Utah product finished 23-of-40 for 203 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a team-high 36 yards, helping the Maulers get to the precipice of going from worst to first in one season. The Maulers face the winner of Sunday's South Division Championship between the Birmingham Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers next week in Canton.

While the two offenses sputtered in the first half, they combined for 31 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. The back-and-forth affair had six lead changes. 

With the USFL’s No.1-ranked defense, Pittsburgh appeared to be in good position to close out the game after kicker Chris Blewitt drilled a league-best, 59-yard field goal to give the Maulers a 20-17 advantage with 3:16 left in regulation.

"He’s our guy," Tezino said. "We watch him practice hit like 65 yards. It’s like easy to him."

However, the Panthers retook the lead when recently anointed starting quarterback E.J. Perry threw a 55-yard TD to Trey Quinn on a go route. The play was initially called back because of a face mask call on offensive tackle Josh Dunlop. The call was reversed by replay, however, and Michigan grabbed a 24-20 lead with 2:04 left. 

But that lead did not last long, as Williams drove the Maulers 51 yards on eight plays. The key play came on fourth-and-goal from Michigan’s 7-yard line, when Williams found Ishmael Hyman on a perfectly thrown ball on a skinny post for the go-ahead score and a 27-24 lead with 39 seconds left. 

Williams said the Maulers ran the same play to score a touchdown during a two-minute drill at practice this week.

Once again, though, Perry proved up to the task, driving the Panthers 38 yards on seven plays, to set up a Cole Murphy 47-yard field goal to send the game into overtime — the first one in the USFL this season. 

Perry and the Panthers started slow, scoring just three points and turning it over three times in the first half. But the Brown product heated up in the second, as he finished 23-of-38 passing for 370 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception.

"In the second half we took care of the ball, and everyone made plays," Perry said. "D.J. [Montgomery] is a foot out of bounds in the first half on a big play, and in the second half, we’re in bounds with Cole [Hikutini] down the sideline. Marcus [Simms] blowing past everyone on the field, and then Trey [Quinn] obviously.

"So at the end of the day, those guys made great plays. And in the first half, we were shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit." 

Even with Michigan gaining some momentum heading into overtime, the Maulers kept their composure. Williams converted the first try from 2 yards out when he found tight end Mason Stokke over the middle on a play-action pass.

Pittsburgh’s defense then forced Michigan running back Stevie Scott to fumble at the goal line. The ball was recovered by Quinn in the end zone, but in overtime, a ball recovered by the offense in the end zone reverts to where the ball was fumbled, so the try was no good.

Williams took matters into his own hands on the second try, running in for a score. And then Pittsburgh’s defense stepped up, with defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu swatting down Perry’s attempt to end the game, with the Maulers rushing the field.

Tezino led the Maulers with nine tackles and a fumble recovery, while Panthers linebacker Frank Ginda was all over the field, totaling 11 combined tackles and a sack.

Quinn finished with five catches for 104 yards for Michigan, while Pittsburgh’s Isiah Hennie hauled in six catches for 83 yards.

"We came from 1-9 and couldn’t beat anybody last year," Maulers head coach Ray Horton said. "We struggled early, but I want to thank these guys for having faith in me. They didn’t know me. They knew me from nobody. We had a plan, and we implemented that plan. Nobody said it was going to be easy. 

"And it wasn’t. It’s not. And it shouldn’t be, for the rewards that you get." 

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.