North Division Championship: Recap & Review

Written and Edited by Seth Brown

June 24th, 2023

Maulers Outlast Panthers in Overtime Thriller as the Two Defensively Dominant Teams Enter Offensive Shootout

Entering the North Division championship, many fans wrote this game off as a fluke. The Maulers and Panthers both had slow, weak offenses but the two best defenses in the league. Both finished with records under .500, and only made the playoffs over two better teams due to divisional alignment. And yet, tonights game was one for the books. Michigan would start with the ball, driving deep into Pittsburgh territory before coming away with a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Pittsburgh would answer right back and tie the game up at 3 each, as neither team would score again for the first half. The slow start was what many expected from the two North playoff teams, as Pittsburgh boasted the leagues best defense but its worst offense, while Michigan boasted the leagues 2nd best defense but arguably, its 2nd worst offense. Following a fumble from Michigan runningback Reggie Corbin inside the 10, Pittsburgh would punch in a score, taking a 10-3 lead into the half, losing a chance to go up 10 as a Chris Blewitt field goal as time expired was blocked. Still, the game was as fans expected - a defensive slugfest between two defensive juggernauts with nothing to show for on offense.

 Despite the slow, defensive first half, the second half was one for the ages. After Pittsburgh turned the ball over on downs inside Michigan territory, Panthers quarterback EJ Perry, who was only signed 3 weeks ago and didn't expect to start until he was suddenly thrust into the job in week 10 - would run in a 6 yard score to tie the game at 10. After a strong defensive stand by Michigan, EJ Perry would unleash a dime deep downfield on the Panthers first play of the drive as Marcus Simms took it the rest of the way for a 72 yard touchdown and to take Michigans first lead of the night, 17-10. After two personal fouls on the Michigan defense, Pittsburgh would be able to let Bailey Gaither punch in a 4 yard rushing score to tie the game again at 17. Entering the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh would attempt a fake punt at midfield but fail. although Michigan would need to punt it right back. Blewitt would put up an incredible 59 yard field goal to take a 20-17 lead for Pittsburgh with just 3:21 left in the game. With each team boasting dominant defenses, this seemed like the end of the game. Yet, the two worst offenses in the USFL, facing off against the two best defenses in the USFL, decided to do their best impressions of the 2021 Bills-Chiefs playoff game in the NFL. EJ Perry would unleash a  55-yarddeep ball to Trey Quinn, who found the endzone to take a 24-20 lead with 2:04 left. Now, this was the end of the game. A powerhouse defense against the worst offense in the league? And yet, the Maulers would drive, helped by multiple personal fouls on the Michigan defense, and, facing Fourth and Goal from the 7 yard line, where a failed play means their season ends, Troy Williams would hit Ishmael Hyman - a former Michigan Panther himself - for a score to take the 27-24 lead with just 39 seconds left. And yet, when all seemed lost for Michigan, EJ Perry marched the Panthers into field goal range, as Cole Murphy sent up a kick to tie the game and force Overtime.

 The Maulers would start with the ball first, as Williams hit Mason Stokke for the first conversion, taking a 29-27 lead. Panthers RB Stevie Scott would then fumble on the Panthers attempt, and despite the fumble being recovered by Panthers WR Trey Quinn in the endzone, the score was not counted due to rules around fumbles inside the 2 minute warning. Troy Williams would then run in the Maulers 2nd conversion to take teh 31-27 lead. EJ Perry, needing to convert for the Panthers to keep OT alive, would have his pass batted down at the line of scrimage, sending the Maulers to the USFL Championship with a 31-27 Overtime win. This was not only the Maulers first playoff appearance in franchise history, but also its first playoff win and its first trip to a title game. Michigan falls short of reaching its 2nd ever title game, but the late season rise of EJ Perry and the strength of the roster all around gives Michigan bright hopes about their 2024 campaign.