Michigan Panthers fall to New Jersey Generals in a slugfest
Despite his Panthers' struggles, Jeff Fisher can take solace that his team had a chance at the end, RJ Young writes.
By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With his cap on backward, Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher opened his postgame press conference by addressing what his team had not been able to accomplish in its 10-6 loss to the New Jersey Generals on Friday night. Then he quickly went straight to what he plans to fix.
He was clipped in his speech, pointed in his criticism. He made begrudging allowances for his offense, though he gave credit to their valiant effort as the game wound down.
With five seconds left to play, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson had willed the Panthers into a position to win at Protective Stadium. After passing for all of 40 yards in the previous 10 drives, Patterson converted a fourth-and-20 from the Michigan 10-yard line — after nearly taking a sack for a safety on the same play.
Four plays later, he took the snap, scrambled to his right, and tried to find his favorite target of the night in Lance Lenoir, but the pass fell incomplete.
The Generals held on to win a defensive slugfest — with two quarterbacks splitting reps for a consecutive week.
Luis Perez and De'Andre Johnson formed the USFL version of Voltron in leading the Generals to their first win. They combined for 145 passing yards, and Johnson rushed for 27 more.
"I really didn't plan for it," Generals coach Mike Riley said of splitting quarterback duties. "I've never done it in all my years of coaching."
Riley wins battle of ex-NFL coaches
With their first victory of the season, the Generals won the first rivalry game of the USFL season — the Northern Duel — to take the lead in the North Division.
The Northern Duel featured the first matchup of the season between two former NFL head coaches. Fisher famously spent 22 years as a head coach in the league, spending most of his time with the Tennessee Titans, leading them to a Super Bowl appearance against a franchise he’d later coach — St. Louis Rams.
Riley spent three years in the NFL as head coach of the San Diego Chargers.
Although both Riley and Fisher coached in the AFC, they had not matched up head-to-head during that time.
To Victor go the spoils
Darius "Vito" Victor had the biggest rush of the game in the Generals' second series — gashing for 21 yards up the middle. The Generals rode Victor for a total of 36 rushing yards before coming away with three points as Riley continued to swap quarterbacks almost play-for-play for a consecutive week.
The Generals followed up a 223-yard rushing performance against the Stallions last week with 113 yards on 32 carries on Friday — nothing as gaudy as their opener, but certainly suitable for the kind of team Riley wants to field: a ball-control offense coupled with an opportunistic, attacking defense.
The Panthers still have a QB problem
Fisher made the decision to stick with Patterson from start to finish. Apart from a great drive to open the second half and the final drive of the game, Patterson spent most of the night scrambling for time to throw. Though he targeted Lenoir nine times, he connected with the former Western Illinois wideout just four times for 23 yards.
One miss by Patterson on an attempt to Lenoir would’ve surely resulted in a touchdown if the pass had been catchable. Patterson finished the night 14 of 29 for 124 yards.
"We’ve got to settle down at the quarterback spot," Fisher said.
The Panthers threw for minus-two yards in the first quarter and managed just seven passing yards (and 49 total) by halftime.
The Generals held Michigan to 183 total yards. In their loss to the Houston Gamblers in Week 1, the Panthers rushed for 189 yards alone.
"Offensively, we have an extra day this week, and we need it," Fisher said. "We have got to figure out who we are and what we can do best, and focus in on those type of things."
The Panthers did have a bright defensive moment when safety Orion Stewart picked off Perez over the middle and returned it to New Jersey's 20-yard line, proceeding to dunk the ball through the goalposts.
"He's a really good football player," Fisher said. "On top of having ball skills, he's smart."
Panthers running back Cameron Scarlett rushed into the end zone just three plays later for the first TD of the game.
Weber released, Magnifico out
Mike Weber, who was the third running back selected in the inaugural USFL Draft and the first selected by the Generals, was released in the lead-up to Week 2.
The Generals began the week as the league’s best rushing offense and Weber had not played. He is eligible to be picked up off waivers this week.
Riley told FOX Sports that the decision to release Weber had nothing to do with him, but with the scarcity on his roster. After losing both tight ends to injury during their opener against Birmingham, Riley and his staff made the decision to add tight end Wes Saxton — choosing to carry a third tight end rather than a third running back.
Speaking of tight ends, the Panthers lost one when Joey Magnifico suffered what might be a season-ending knee injury. Magnifico returned to professional football less than a year after he was hired as head coach at St. Benedict at Auburndale, his high school alma mater, in Memphis.
He is the second player in the USFL to have his season ended prematurely by injury. Panthers safety Warren Saba broke his forearm in Michigan’s season-opener against the Gamblers.
No other team has lost a player due to a season-ending game injury this season.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.