A sun-splashed Tom Benson Stadium in the lead-up to the North Division Championship.
Canton, OH - On a beautiful early summer evening at Tom Benson Stadium in the shadows of the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Pittsburgh Maulers squared off with the Michigan Panthers with a trip to next week's USFL Championship on the line. For much of the game, it lived up to its billing as a defensive battle. That is until the 4th quarter came around, and an offensive onslaught was underway.
The Michigan Panthers received the opening kick-off and started the game with a meticulous 15-play drive that went 66 yards and elapsed 8:15 from the game clock before Cole Murphy hit a 23-yard field goal after the Maulers defense buckled down in the goal-to-go situation.
In the Maulers opening drive, they would go 8 plays and 23 yards before Chris Blewitt connected on a 45-yard field goal with 2:25 remaining in the opening frame. The chess match looked to be on, with each team using short plays to get down the field and into field goal range before the opposing defense hardened and forced a field goal attempt.
Following a Panthers fumble in the early stages of the 2nd quarter, the Maulers took over in the red zone and needed only 4 plays to get the game's first touchdown. On the scoring play, Garrett Groshek took a handoff out of the shotgun and rumbled up the gut of the Panthers defense into the endzone. Chris Blewitt was successful on the PAT and the score was 10-3 in favor of the Maulers with 8:22 left in the 1st half.
From there, the Maulers defense wasn't done forcing turnovers. Following an EJ Perry completion to Cole Hikutini, Hikutini would sidestep a Mark Gilbert tackle attempt but lose his balance and the ball in the process, with All-USFL linebacker Kyahva Tezino falling on the loose ball. Initially, the play resulted in a Maulers touchdown, but upon further review, Tezino was ruled down by contact at the point of the recovery.
The Maulers offense would not be able to extend the lead as a result of the turnover but in the ensuing Panthers drive, looking to shrink the Maulers lead ahead of halftime, an EJ Perry pass attempt down the right sideline would be picked off by Arnold Tarpley III, giving the Maulers another shot at extending their lead prior to the break.
The Maulers were able to get the ball down into the red zone before opting for a Chris Blewitt 28-yard attempt on the final play of the half. Looking to extend the lead to a two-possession game ahead of the 2nd half with the Maulers set to receive the opening kickoff, Blewitt's attempt was blocked and the score remained 10-3 in favor of Pittsburgh as the teams headed for the locker rooms.
The 3rd quarter featured a Panthers comeback, as EJ Perry settled in and the Michigan offense found their groove. First, it was an EJ Perry keeper from 6 yards out to knot the game at 10 following a successful Murphy PAT.
Following another Michigan defensive stop, Perry would find Marcus Simms on the first play of the drive for a 72-yard catch and run to pay dirt, giving the Panthers their first lead since the 1st quarter.
The Maulers would answer on the following drive, taking 9 plays to go 38 yards, ending with a Bailey Gaither 4-yard scamper on a sweep to again draw the game to even at 17 with 13:33 left in the 4th quarter.
From there, the back-and-forth affair would continue. With 3:16 left in regulation, Chris Blewitt would break the tie with a USFL Playoff record-setting boot from 59 yards.
The Panthers would answer on the following drive, this time it was Perry connecting with Trey Quinn on a 55 yard bomb down the left sideline.
The play was initially called back on a facemask penalty on RT Josh Dunlop, but upon further review from Los Angeles, Director of Officiating Mike Pereria overturned the ruling, giving the Panthers a 24-20 lead with 2:04 left in the 4th quarter. A closer look at the play showed that, while there was no facemask, there was blatant holding on the play. Since there was no call for holding during the action, that could not be added as a result of the review. Sadly, this would not be the last play altered by a review that would have a lasting impact on the game's result.
All season long, it was the Maulers defense and special teams that put them in this position. With 1:58 left in regulation trailing by 4, the weight of the season would fall on Troy Williams and the Maulers offense. With the assistance of a personal foul penalty on the kickoff return, the Maulers took possession near midfield. Williams would lead them downfield to a goal-to-go situation. Facing a 4th down do-or-die play, Williams would find Ishmael Hyman on a 6-yard slant for the leading touchdown with 39 seconds left in regulation.
Ishmael Hyman about to reel in the Troy Williams pass to give the Maulers a late lead.
EJ Perry would have 39 seconds to get the Panthers within field goal range for a chance to tie the game. He would succeed, going 38 yards over 7 plays to set up a Cole Murphy game tying field goal as time expired on regulation.
The USFL overtime rules are best described as a hybrid of FIFA Soccer and an NHL shootout. Both teams get chances from the 2-yard line and have one shot to convert a 2-point conversion in a best-of-3 situation. The Maulers were first up and were successful on their first attempt as Troy Williams found Mason Stokke through the air. As previously mentioned, Review would once more play a big role in swaying the result of the game. This time it was on the Panthers first conversion attempt. Initially it was ruled that Stevie Scott III broke the plane of the goal line before fumbling. After review, it was determined he had lost possession before crossing the goal line and although it was recovered by the Panthers in the end zone, overtime rules state that the ball can not be advanced by the offense past the point of the fumble.
On the second conversion attempt for the Maulers, Troy Williams faked a sweep to Ishmael Hyman, on the same play they ran earlier in the night on Bailey Gaithers 4 yard touchdown, and tucked the ball and reached the ball across the goal line for the 2nd conversion of overtime. Once again, it was do-or-die time in Canton. Following a false start penalty, EJ Perry dropped back to pass but the ball was batted down at the line of scrimmage by Olive Sagapolu.
With the 31-27 victory, the Maulers await the South Division Champion, that will be decided Sunday Night in Birmingham, Alabama as the Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers square off.