By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Special teams for the Pittsburgh Maulers put them in a position to win the game early on.
However, late-game miscues in the all-important third phase of the game led to Pittsburgh’s demise as they once again found a way to lose — this one a 17-16 setback to the Philadelphia Stars on Sunday night at Protective Stadium.
Maulers kicker Ramiz Ahmed pushed a 49-yard field goal wide right with 58 seconds left that would have won the game. Ahmed also missed an extra point, resulting in the one-point loss for Pittsburgh.
The Stars earned their fourth straight win, improving to 6-3 on the year. Philadelphia will face the New Jersey Generals next week, and then again a week later in the opening round of the USFL playoffs in Canton.
"We were very fortunate on that one," Stars head coach Bart Andrus said about his team’s close win. "That’s what you call in my terminology a clunker."
The Maulers dropped to 1-7.
"We came up short," Maulers head coach Kirby Wilson said. "We needed one more play and we just didn’t get it. That’s the game of football. But I’m proud of the men, the fight they showed from start to finish."
With Pittsburgh leading and controlling the game most of the way, Philadelphia safety Ahmad Dixon made the game-changing play for the Stars. On first-and-10 from Philadelphia’s 35-yard line, Dixon came free up the middle on a safety blitz, blowing up the handoff between quarterback Vad Lee and Madre London in the backfield.
Colburn totaled 97 rushing yards on 12 carries.
"It’s really just everybody understanding their assignment, between the offensive line and the receivers," Colburn said about his play. "Going above and beyond and blocking downfield. The chemistry has increased the last couple weeks, and you can really see it on the field."
The Stars played tough defensively, forcing four turnovers and scoring 10 points off those miscues. Philadelphia leads the USFL with 85 points off turnovers this season.
Philadelphia starting quarterback Case Cookus took some big hits in the first half. He finished 5-of-13 for 62 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. The Maulers sacked Cookus two times.
Cookus gave way to backup KJ Costello in the second half, who also was under siege by Pittsburgh’s defense. The Stanford product finished 4-of-10 for 69 yards.
"As a quarterback, you need to knock that rust off, so that was our intention going in," Andrus said, when asked about playing Costello. "We can’t predict the future, but at some point, we may need him on the field again."
With nothing to lose, the Maulers opened up the playbook. Pittsburgh executed a fake punt at midfield in the second quarter, with punter Max Duffy rolling out and finding Hunter Thedford for a 19-yard play to keep the chains moving.
On the same drive, the Maulers lined up for a 31-yard field goal. However, the holder Duffy flipped the ball over his head to the kicker Ahmed, who threw a wobbler to linebacker Malcolm Howard in the end zone for a 14-yard score. The play gave Pittsburgh a 10-3 lead.
Ahmed also striped a 59-yard field goal.
Philadelphia cornerback Channing Stribling corralled his league-leading seventh interception in the first half.
Isiah Hennie loses tooth on big hit
Maulers receiver Isiah Hennie took a big hit at the end of a 10-yard reception by Philadelphia defensive back Cody Brown that had him spitting out a loose tooth on the sideline.
"I lost one, but it’s just a wisdom tooth though," Hennie told his teammate on the sideline.
Hennie impressively remained in the game but will need a dentist to fix the missing tooth. He finished with two receptions for 11 yards.
"He made a great play along the sideline to set up the touchdown and keep the drive going," Wilson said. "So, hat’s off to him. I’m sorry about the lost tooth. But pound for pound he might be one of the toughest members of this football team. And as a late addition, I couldn’t ask for a better guy. I’m really proud of him"
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.