The clock struck midnight on the Pittsburgh Maulers Cinderella story. The team had the opportunity to go from “worst to first” in the USFL Championship game, but it wasn’t to be as they lost to the Birmingham Stallions 28-12 for their second-straight league title.
The Maulers had the honor of taking the first drive of the game after the Stallions won the toss and deferred. Pittsburgh then orchestrated a long, 16-play opening drive that spanned 9:37. Despite knocking on the door at Birmingham’s two-yard line, the Maulers red zone struggles reared their ugly head. The team settled for a successful Chris Blewitt field goal attempt to get on the board.
The true storyline of the game started next as the Stallions top-ranked offense took on Pittsburgh’s top defense. The first battle was won by the Maulers on a decisive 4th-and-1 near midfield. Birmingham quarterback and USFL MVP Alex McGough attempted to take it himself but was met by former NFL first-rounder Reuben Foster forcing a turnover on downs.
Starting with the ball on the Stallions 41-yard line, Pittsburgh’s next drive nearly resulted in disaster. When navigating the pocket on a 3rd-and-7, Maulers quarterback Troy Williams coughed up a nearly game-changing fumble. Fortunately for the gunslinger, his team was able to recover the ball.
The Stallions offense would win the second battle against the Pittsburgh defense. On the sixth play of their drive, McGough launched a 42-yard pass to his receiver Davion Davis for a touchdown. Brandon Aubrey would convert the extra-point attempt to give Birmingham a 7-3 lead.
Three drives in and it’s clear that Maulers head coach Ray Horton is a Matt Canada fan. Quick passes, power runs, and jet sweeps were plentiful in another slow-moving offensive possession. Much like the Steelers offense a season ago, red zone touchdowns were far, and few between. The team settled for another Blewitt field goal to cut into the Stallions lead.
McGough was masterful in Birmingham’s next drive. Despite starting behind the sticks early with a 2nd-and-20 due to a Maulers sack, the league MVP didn’t flinch, delivering dime after dime. A former Steeler, wide receiver Deon Cain, caught a heater to find paydirt on a three-yard slant.
With just 31 seconds left in the half, Pittsburgh took the ball. A costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Stallions sideline gave the Maulers the opportunity to attempt a last-second field goal from 55 yards out. Blewitt kicked the ball perfectly down the middle to make the score 14-9 at halftime. Based on the former University of Pittsburgh kicker’s performance this year, don’t be surprised when he receives NFL looks.
The Stallions opened up the second half by taking a page from Pittsburgh’s book. The team marched down the field on six runs that totaled 58 yards. The power running eventually opened the door for McGough to once again find Cain for his second touchdown of the night.
The Maulers continued their slow-moving strategy despite struggling to move the ball deep into Stallions territory on recent drives. The result was the same as before as the team settled for yet another far-field goal from Blewitt. The score then sat at 21-12.
Birmingham pieced together another impressive drive that spanned 12 plays and over six minutes. Poised for another score with the ball inside the red zone, McGough attempted to escape a sack as he backed up nearly 30 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Foster then made his second big play of the game, stripping the quarterback. Defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu recovered the ball and returned it to the Birmingham 33-yard line before illegally handing off the ball forward.
The Maulers offense was not able to capitalize on the 60-yard fumble recovery, going three-and-out. To make matters worse, this time, Blewitt was not able to salvage the drive, missing his first kick of the night from 48 yards out.
Desperate for another stop, Pittsburgh’s defense then forced the Stallions first three-and-out of the game.
Trailing by nine with 7:29 remaining, the Maulers offense was desperate. The team elected to go for it on 4th and 8. Williams looked for Bailey Gaither over the middle of the field but the receiver didn’t look back for the ball fast enough. The team turned the ball over on downs.
With the ball already on Pittsburgh’s side of the field, the Stallions would not waste their opportunity. It took just two plays for McGough to drop another long ball to who else, but Cain for their third connection of the night.
In the waning minutes of the game, the Maulers offensive woes persisted. In need of any type of life, Pittsburgh was able to push the ball to the Birmingham 31 but the drive ended in disaster. On 3rd-and-19 Williams fumbled the ball, giving it back to the Stallions.
With under three minutes left in the game, the Stallions put the Maulers on ice. A pair of first downs ended the game and earned Birmingham back-to-back championships. The Maulers finished their season much better than last season with a record of 5-7. Cain was named MVP of the USFL Championship Game with four catches, 70 yards, three touchdowns.