In a game featuring teams that have both experienced offensive struggles, Williams single-handedly willed his team to a 23-7 victory over the hometown Michigan Panthers — and a postgame locker room party that was heard from the press room.
"To me, it's just a combination of a lot of hard work, and it's hard to win a game," said Pittsburgh head coach Ray Horton as his players sat next to him grinning. "And so you get to let loose for a little bit, and as they said, we're going down to Memphis next week and try to continue staying on the train tracks."
Williams was responsible for 243 of his team’s 299 total yards. He completed 15 of 19 pass attempts for 184 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while also leading the team in rushing yards with 59 on 10 carries, including one for a 13-yard score.
"I just feel like we started to trust one another more and more each week," said Williams. "Each game we spend more time with each other on and off the field, so I feel like that's been great for us. And we feel like anybody on offense can get going at any point in time. So just trying to keep harping on staying on top of our base rules and keep trying to have fun."
Aside from Williams, wide receiver Bailey Gaither had a spectacular one-handed grab in the third quarter to move the Maulers 43 yards down the field. The catch single-handedly gave Gaither the team lead in receiving yards on the day, as he finished with four catches for 89 total receiving yards.
The Maulers were also improved in the red zone. They came into the game having converted just one of 12 red zone trips into a touchdown. On Saturday, they were three-for-four, with 21 total points coming from inside the 20.
"The big thing for us was getting the ball in our playmakers' hands," said Williams. "We've been preaching that these past couple of weeks."
The Maulers' defense lived up to its reputation. Coming into the game leading the USFL with a +3 turnover margin, the Maulers took the ball away four times on Saturday, setting up 13 points for the offense. In a low-scoring game like this, that made all the difference.
"I think we’re just playing with a lot of confidence," said cornerback Mark Gilbert. "We know how good we are currently. We can be we know how much better we can get. So I think we’re just trying to keep the train rolling."
"We’re all coming together, we got that swagger about us right now, and I think that's kind of what’s pushing us to stay in the game and be in the game and win our game," said linebacker Kyahva Tezino.
Wide receiver Ishmael Hyman was the early hero for the Michigan Panthers. After winning the coin toss and electing to defer, the Panthers forced an empty possession from the Pittsburgh Maulers thanks to a Breeland Speaks tackle for loss.
"What I love about Breeland is that he works so doggone hard," said Michigan head coach Mike Nolan after the game. "And I would say more than that, it's really important to him. He gives tremendous effort. I think a lot of his plays come off of just sheer effort. The best players in the NFL play with great effort. And I think if he wants to get his shot and going back one day, he’ll probably have it."
On the ensuing punt, Hyman returned the ball from the goal-line to the Pittsburgh 26 on a thrilling run; bobbing, weaving and breaking tackles along the way. From there, quarterback Josh Love was able to take it the rest of the way, the drive culminating in a 5-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone to former Dallas Cowboys tight end Cole Hikutini. The Panthers led 7-0 with 9:09 still left in the first quarter. The Panthers couldn't sustain much offensively after that, however.
Pittsburgh quickly tied it up on the ensuing possession, thanks to a well-balanced drive by Williams in which he was able to use his own mobility to move the chains. The Maulers’ first score came on a shovel pass from Williams to fullback/tight end Mason Stokke with 2:02 left, evening the score at seven in the first quarter.
And while the next drive looked promising for the Panthers, Reggie Corbin fumbled the ball at the Michigan 41-yard line, giving the ball back to Pittsburgh in plus territory. Williams quickly hit wide receiver Isiah Hennie and the Maulers were in the red zone. They ended up scoring on a Williams pass to Hennie, giving Pittsburgh its first lead of the game with 13:38 left in the first half.
Speaks had a great day for the Panthers, not only stopping the Maulers’ first possession nearly single-handedly but sacking Williams three times and finishing with six combined tackles, one for loss and a fumble recovery. Speaks leads the league in sacks through five weeks with seven. He also recovered a fumble late in the game to set the Panthers’ offense up at the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. It was Williams’ lone blemish for Pittsburgh, but after an interception of Carson Strong in the end zone, didn’t turn into any points for the Panthers. Williams was able to run the ball in for the score from 13 yards out on the ensuing drive, putting the Maulers up 23-7 after a blocked extra-point attempt.
Michigan's offense couldn’t manage any kind of rhythm. Despite leading and then being down just one score in the first half, the Panthers had minus-1 rushing yards through the first two quarters and finished the game with only 18 yards on the ground.
Panthers head coach Mike Nolan continued to give playing time to both Love and Strong at the quarterback position. Strong finished 13-of-23 for 94 yards and an interception. He was sacked four times. Love was 8-for-12 for 68 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
"There will still be a quarterback competition," Nolan said. "We'll still talk about it this week. And we'll still be able to let you know who's going to start the week, but I don't believe any performance was convincing to say this person is the guy."
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. 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 résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.