Panthers snag playoff berth behind new QB, special teams dominance

DETROIT — It was win or go home in prime time on Sunday night in a Week 10 battle between the Philadelphia Stars and Michigan Panthers.

The Stars were playing for the chance to lock up the North and earn their postseason place. The Panthers were playing to continue their season via their very first win at home. It was a battle between offensive ingenuity and defensive prowess — and in this case, the age-old adage proved true yet again: defense wins (or helps you get to) championships.

Michigan got its first win in front of the biggest Ford Field crowd all season, a 23-20 nail-biter, while simultaneously punching a ticket to the franchise's first playoff appearance in this iteration of the USFL.

"It's playoff time," said Panthers head coach Mike Nolan. "And because of this victory, we're going to the playoffs. So, it's special I guess you could say."

The difference-maker proved to be a special teams play, which had been the Panthers’ most productive unit all night. Wide receiver Marcus Simms, in particular, single-handedly contributed multiple massive kick returns and then his pièce de résistance: a blocked punt that was scooped up by A.J. Richardson and carried in for the Panthers’ first touchdown of the night. A good two-point conversion and Michigan had new life. It was the Panthers' first lead of the game and didn’t come until the end of the third quarter, but the Panthers’ defense took it from there and wouldn’t relinquish it, lining up in victory formation to ultimately end the game.

A spark also came from quarterback E.J. Perry, making his first start for the Panthers upon an announcement made just this past Friday. Perry, a product of Brown University, holds a vastly different skill set than quarterback Josh Love. Where Love is a pocket-passer, Perry is much more mobile and makes his living using his legs. Together with his coaches, they were able to simplify the playbook and put in plays that Perry already had experience with. The result was a more creative offense, the likes of which we hadn’t seen from the Panthers so far this season.

"Coach condensed it and did a good job of putting in some stuff that I've run in the past and that I've liked and done well with, and incorporating that with the offense they already had," said Perry after the game. "I thought you know at times we are able to execute really well, and there's obviously some things that we need to work on this week and get better at. A lot of it is on me but yeah, I felt comfortable walking out there. The biggest part of me feeling comfortable was I had a bunch of guys around me who are terrific football players."

There was no more evidence of that than the fact Michigan, offensively, recorded far fewer offensive stats than their opponents. They had just 13 first downs to Philadelphia’s 20. They had just 205 total yards to Philly’s 330. The Panthers converted just three of 11 third-down attempts, whereas the Stars converted nine of 17. But all three phases matter, and special teams is where the Stars let them back into the game.

Quarterback Case Cookus and the Stars’ offense began the night with a play-action pass to the league leader in receiving yards, Corey Coleman. From there, Cookus engineered an eight-play, 58-yard drive that ended in a 23-yard touchdown to Terry Wright. It was a continuation of the momentum Cookus created last week, when he threw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. It gave Philadelphia a 7-0 lead with 10:35 left in the first quarter.

In their last chance for a home win on the season, the Panthers’ first possession stalled out behind Perry in his first start for Michigan. A 53-yard field goal try went wide and the Panthers came away with no points to answer Philadelphia’s opening score.

Michigan wouldn’t get much out of its offense on the night in general, but its special teams unit did its best to make up for it. Not only did Michigan get two huge returns on kickoffs to set up field goals, but their first touchdown of the night also came on the aforementioned blocked punt in the third quarter. It pulled the Panthers within five points.

The Panthers’ defense did its best to contain the Stars’ surging offense. A long drive for the Stars at the beginning of the second quarter yielded minimal results after a touchdown was negated by an offensive pass interference penalty. Instead, Philly settled for a field goal from kicker Luis Aguilar, the USFL’s leader in kicking points, to make the score 10-0 with 11:17 left in the first half. 

Michigan got its first special teams boost from a 55-yard kickoff return in the second quarter by Simms, which set up a 51-yard field goal by Cole Murphy to get Michigan on the board.

That wouldn’t be Simms’ only contribution, either. On the Panthers’ next possession, Simms returned the kick 67 yards, setting Michigan up at the Philly 21. Perry and the offense would again not be able to get six, but Murphy hit another field goal to give Michigan six points right before the two-minute warning, pulling the Panthers within a score of the Stars.

Right before halftime, the Stars had a stalled drive receive new life when a roughing the passer penalty moved the Stars to the Michigan 29 with 30 seconds left on the clock. Cookus then took a shot over the middle into a tight window, where the ball was caught by Diondre Overton, giving the Stars a 20-6 lead at the break.

Perry opened up the second half with a bang as he hit Trey Quinn for a 31-yard gain to get Michigan inside the red zone in a hurry. Quinn hauled it in with one hand, giving Michigan its most impressive offensive play of the game. The Panthers’ red zone woes continued, though, as Michigan settled for another field goal, making the score 20-9 with 12:47 left in the third quarter.

The Panthers were able to gain some ground, cutting the Stars’ lead to 20-15 thanks to the aforementioned blocked punt return for a touchdown.

Michigan’s special teams unit then came through yet again, getting a piece of Aguilar’s 50-yard attempt at the end of the third quarter, preventing the Stars from tacking onto their five-point lead.

The Panthers’ then got creative offensively, first utilizing Perry’s legs on a designed run that got him 25 yards. Then, on a trick play to right guard James Walker, as Perry pitched the ball to the big man and Michigan got five more yards.

Michigan then took the lead on an aborted play, as Perry fumbled the snap, but picked it up and ran it in from six yards out to give the Panthers a 21-20 lead. Not done yet, Michigan went for the two-point conversion to go up 23-20 with just over 13 minutes left in the game.

The score would miraculously stay there, with no major adjustments by the Panthers to speak of, per Nolan, after the game. The blocked punt sparked the entire team to raise their level of play and now, the Panthers are playoff bound.

"I’m sure happy there’s parity," said Nolan.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports, giving you insight and analysis on the league’s most historic division. Before joining FOX, Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her resume.She now spends her time exploring the city of Chicago and is never too far away from a local sporting event or pilates class. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.