Week nine in the USFL kicks off with a crucial matchup between the Pittsburgh Maulers and Michigan Panthers. With playoff spots still up for grabs in the North, whoever wins this game puts themselves in a position to secure the first or second seed.
The Pittsburgh Maulers are coming off a three game losing streak, with their last victory coming against these very same Michigan Panthers.
On the other hand, the Panthers have lost five of their last six, struggling to gain any ground in the North Division. Mike Nolan’s defense has been playing well, but offensively it’s been tough to watch, especially at home.
Let’s take a look at the key factors heading into this game, and what to expect from each USFL franchise.
Week Five Matchup
When these two organizations met in week five, it was Pittsburgh who absolutely dominated. Despite a solid effort defensively from the Panthers, Troy Williams and the Maulers offense turned out to be too much for Michigan to handle.
Troy Williams has been improving with each and every week.
Meanwhile, it was an awful game from an offensive standpoint for Josh Love, as Pittsburgh had his number all day long.
The Maulers would go on to win 23-7, not allowing a single point from the Panthers after their opening drive.
Troy Williams has been playing solid football as of late. Despite the losing streak, Williams stats are efficient, doing what he can for the team through the air and on the ground.
Troy ran all over Michigan in week five. The Panthers typically struggle to contain mobile quarterbacks. If this trend continues, Williams should be able to use his legs to generate some much needed offense for the Pittsburgh Maulers.
Josh Love has had an up and down season for Michigan. While he’s won offensive player of the week twice, he’s also had some lackluster performances that led to a four game losing streak at home.
Love mightily struggled against the Maulers and their fierce pass rush a few weeks ago. It will be intriguing to see how Michigan adjusts to that this weekend. If Josh can’t get out of the pocket – at least a bit – the Panthers could be in serious trouble.
Both of these teams feature quite a bit of talent offensively, which is why it’s been frustrating to see them be so dormant at times.
Beginning with the backfield, Michigan has the clear advantage. Reggie Corbin and Stevie Scott have both been solid this season, with Corbin doing a lot of return work for the team as well. While Reggie hasn’t gotten as many touches as he’d probably like, he’s made the most of his opportunities so far.
Meanwhile, Madre London and Garrett Groshek have to find a way to support Troy on the ground. Williams is by far the team’s leading rusher, which isn’t ideal. London, in particular, needs to get into an early rhythm this week if Pittsburgh wants to be successful.
Joe Walker and Trey Quinn have been spectacular for Michigan over the past two weeks. The duo has stepped it up time and time again, making important plays for the Panthers to keep the team in striking distance. If Love has enough protection to make timely throws, expect Quinn and Walker to perform quite well.
Will we finally see Ishmael Hyman play for Pittsburgh? The Maulers claimed him off waivers from Michigan, but he’s hardly seen the field. Hyman is a talented WR, and provides depth to Walker and Gaither. Ray Horton needs to get Ish involved in this game.
Pittsburgh certainly has an advantage when it comes to special teams. Both Joshua Simmons and Isiah Hennie have been electrifying as returners, leading the USFL in both of those categories. Simmons has been a revelation on kickoffs, setting Pittsburgh up with excellent field position time and time again.
JOSHUA. SIMMONS. What a massive special teams play for the @USFLMaulers, as they take the lead after an 88 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, courtesy of @TM7_JS7.
Both Chris Blewitt and Cole Murphy are relatively solid kickers, with Blewitt being a bit more consistent. Murphy has struggled as of late, missing multiple extra points. That being said, he did hit a 50 yard kick this weekend.
Which Defense Has The Edge?
There are going to be some serious storylines to watch this weekend between two fierce defenses. First off, Pittsburgh’s defensive line gave Josh Love fits a few weeks ago. He could not escape the claws of Boogie Roberts, Chris Okoye, Olive Sagapolu, etc. – they controlled the tone of the game from the first snaps.
If Michigan can’t protect their quarterback efficiently, they’re in trouble. The Maulers defense continues to make signal callers pay, as their front seven is one of the most dangerous in the USFL.
Mark Gilbert vs. Joe Walker. Grab your popcorn. A few weeks ago, Gilbert had his way, shutting down Walker for most of the outing. Mark is one of PFF’s highest graded cornerbacks in the league, doing it all for Pittsburgh in 2023.
Breeland Speaks and Frank Ginda have been unstoppable for the Panthers this season. However, the rest of the defense hasn’t always contributed at a high level, which is something to watch. In week five, Troy Williams had his way. The Panthers were not able to keep him in the pocket, which led to Pittsburgh finding ways to keep their drives alive.
Josh Butler, Levonta Taylor, Warren Saba, etc. will have to step up on Saturday. They’ve been some of the USFL’s top defenders in 2023. Saba is coming off a massive game against New Orleans, forcing two turnovers. Meanwhile, Taylor hasn’t allowed a touchdown all season long.
Warren. Saba. Mr. Do-It-All is keeping the @USFLPanthers in this ball game. After recovering a fumble earlier, @HOLLYWOOD17__ picks off Bethel-Thompson to set up the Panthers nicely right before half.
If Michigan’s defense can come through and effectively shut down the Troy Williams train, the Panthers put themselves in a position to clinch a playoff berth.
Michigan Panthers | Mike Nolan: It’s been an up and down season so far for Mike Nolan. While the defense is stout, as expected, Mike’s offense has been relatively lackluster. He tends to play things safe, which isn’t a bad thing – but in spring football, that doesn’t always work. Regardless, Michigan is in a position to make a postseason run if they can get on the right track now.
Pittsburgh Maulers | Ray Horton: The Maulers have suffered some brutal losses this season, which isn’t entirely Ray Horton’s fault. For example, a missed field goal from Chris Blewitt resulted in a loss against Houston last week. However, Ray has to figure out how to get his team to clean up the mental mistakes. Costly penalties continue to haunt this team, every single week.
With how inconsistent both of these teams have been, it’s tough to say who is the favorite. Pittsburgh had their way last time – but if the division trends continue as they have in the USFL this season, that means that it’s Michigan’s turn. Additionally, the Panthers are 2-0 in Canton, for whatever that’s worth.
So much is on the line this week. Michigan moves one step closer to grabbing a playoff berth with a win. However, if the Pittsburgh Maulers can find a way to win these last two games, they’re right in the thick of it as well. Expect physical football this weekend, with neither team wanting to surrender ground in what might be their final stand.
It all kicks off this Saturday, at 12pm ET on FOX.
What are your thoughts on this upcoming USFL matchup between the Michigan Panthers and Pittsburgh Maulers? Which USFL players will impress? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!