By Michael Cohen
FOX Sports Writer
DETROIT — Sunday was designed to be a celebration. Forty years had passed since the USFL last staged football games in Detroit, a city forever intertwined with the league’s history. The Michigan Panthers were crowned champions during the USFL's first chapter, in 1983, and so much of this weekend’s return to the Motor City was meant to revive that lineage.
Former Detroit Pistons star Ben Wallace was among the guests at Ford Field when the Panthers hosted the New Jersey Generals. So, too, was former Detroit Lions legend Calvin Johnson. Even Bobby Hebert, the quarterback from the ’83 Panthers squad, returned to Michigan and engaged the fans with a halftime speech.
The league’s president, Daryl Johnston, told the crowd that there was no USFL host city he was more excited about revitalizing than Detroit. But undefeated Michigan stumbled early and often against the Generals. Head coach Mike Nolan’s team surrendered 21 points in a 10-minute span between the first and second quarters, and no amount of cajoling, pleading and emotional support from the crowd was enough to erase the deficit. A balanced Generals’ attack gained 198 yards on the ground and 180 more through the air to secure a 28-13 victory that cast an unfortunate pall on an otherwise raucous evening.
"I thought they were awesome," Nolan said of the crowd. "I really did. There was a bunch of people out there. And, to be perfectly frank with you, that’s one of the disappointments I had was not to have a better showing for the people that were here, because we’re a much better football team than that. And we didn’t show that today. I hope they come back and support us and continue to believe in us."
Stretching the field
Forty-five minutes west of here, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, there was an offensive coordinator named Josh Gattis who, upon his hiring in 2019, vowed to transform the Wolverines into an exciting offense. He used the popular catchphrase "speed in space" to describe an offensive philosophy predicated on getting the ball to his playmakers with open field in front of them.
To any Michigan fans who visited Ford Field on Sunday in support of their hometown Panthers, the offense employed by Generals head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Steve Smith might have reminded them of the things Gattis promised during his three-year tenure with the Wolverines: swing passes, screen passes and a quarterback’s sleight of hand.
An early deficit notwithstanding, the Generals raced to a 21-3 lead that highlighted their superior athletes at running back (Darius Victor) and quarterback (De’Andre Johnson) whose combinations of vision and explosiveness were problematic for the Panthers on the fast track of an indoor playing surface.
The former turned a beautifully arced screen pass into a 51-yard touchdown after he outran the Michigan defense down the left sideline. Victor, who was named USFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2022, reached the end zone again when he broke through the line of scrimmage and stiff-armed strong safety Sean Mahone to the ground for an impressive 35-yard score.
The latter, Johnson, transformed a simple read-option into a 70-yard run up the middle that launched New Jersey into the red zone. He scored one snap later by veering around the right side of the formation in the wake of an excellent play-action fake. His aerial contributions, while modest, supplied a heavy dose of lateral throws outside the numbers that forced Michigan to defend the full width of the field.
"It’s very important, because you create explosive plays doing that," Johnson said of stretching the field. "Force them to cover the whole field. On a football field, there’s four lanes, and if you attack each lane, there’s nothing that they can do. They can’t be right."
Eventually, the steady flow of bubble screens and horizontal passes lulled Michigan’s defense to sleep early in the fourth quarter. The Generals stacked two receivers on the right side of the formation — just as they had all game — but executed a perfect fake in which Johnson pumped his shoulder and the Panthers bit on what they thought was another quick pass to the perimeter.
Instead, wideout Alonzo Moore streaked downfield on a vertical route for an easy 72-yard score.
Johnson, who was featured on the popular docuseries "Last Chance U" during his time at East Mississippi Community College, completed his first seven passes and finished 10 of 15 for 180 yards and two scores. He and Victor also combined for 166 rushing yards and two more touchdowns on 19 carries.
"Versatility is a big, big deal in football," Riley said, "and the things that they present, that they can do, is really important to how we build our team offensively. I thought that they both showed that tonight."
Through the first two weeks of the season, Josh Love was the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback for Nolan and offensive coordinator Eric Marty. Love, who threw for more than 7,200 yards at San Jose State from 2016-19, had guided the Panthers to a 2-0 record with reasonably efficient numbers: 33-of-50 for 389 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
But the gulf between Love and backup Carson Strong, a two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year at Nevada, might be narrowing after Sunday’s game. Though Love retained his role as the starter against the Generals — he opened both halves for Michigan and played the majority of his team’s offensive snaps — an uneven start prompted a quarterback change partway through the second quarter, and Strong gave the Panthers a critical boost.
With his team trailing by 18 points, Strong completed passes of 10 yards, 7 yards and 17 yards in the span of four snaps before drawing a defensive pass interference penalty on the fifth snap. He connected with wide receiver Trey Quinn for a 28-yard touchdown to punctuate Michigan’s nine-play, 66-yard drive that proved to be the Panthers’ only trip to the end zone.
Despite the spark Strong had given the offense, Love returned as the primary signal caller in the second half. He orchestrated a marathon 16-play, 66-yard drive that washed more than nine minutes off the clock but stalled with two completions short of the chains in the red zone.
"I think they had a good game plan coming in against us," Love said. "We just can’t shoot ourselves in the foot (early in the game). We’ve got to go out there and do our job and go out there with whatever play call we have and compete and get the job done. I think definitely this is a wake-up call.
"We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and have a great week of practice and move on."
Michigan’s hope for a victory in its home opener were erased on the next possession when Love, who finished 15 of 31 for 101 yards, stared at his receiver on the right sideline and fired an interception into double coverage.
The Generals broke the game open with a 72-yard touchdown on their next offensive snap.
"It was an 8-point ball game for a while there, and things looked like they were turning in our favor," Nolan said. "That’s what I felt, and I think our team felt that. And then we kind of shot ourselves in the foot."
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.