Panthers Fall 31-18 to Stallions in USFL Conference Championship

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by Roman Bruno

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (June 8, 2024) – A season full of promise and adversity for the Michigan Panthers ended on Saturday at Protective Stadium, as the team fell 31-18 to the Birmingham Stallions in the USFL Conference Championship. It was Michigan’s third loss to Birmingham this season. 

 

Michigan scored the game’s first points and led 12-0 after the first quarter, but the Stallions finished the game strong with 28 unanswered points. 

 

The Panthers offense was 5-for-5 on their drives to open the game, scoring one touchdown and four Jake Bates field goals in the first half. However, Birmingham climbed back. After a wild third quarter which featured six combined turnovers (four interceptions and two fumbles), the game entered the fourth quarter tied 18-18. 

 

Birmingham took their first lead of the game at 13:42 in the fourth quarter and did not look back. Matt Corral, who entered during the third quarter for Birmingham in place of Adrian Martinez, threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to Amari Rodgers. That was all the Stallions needed to steal the victory away and advance to their third straight spring league championship game. 

 

Linebackers Noah Dawkins and Javin White had notable showings in the loss. Dawkins led the team in tackles with eight while tallying one sack and one forced fumble. White recorded seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, two tackles-for-loss, one interception and one pass breakup.

 

Michigan opened on offense and hit paydirt just five plays into the game with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Danny Etling to Siaosi Mariner. The Panthers led 6-0 after failing to convert their one-point attempt.

 

The Panthers defense made a big play of their own not long after, stopping the Stallions from converting a 4th-and-1 on Birmingham’s 42-yard line. Noah Dawkins, who missed the regular season finale last week, stopped running back Ricky Person Jr. for no gain. 

 

Michigan took advantage of plus territory, extending their lead with a 53-yard Jake Bates field goal with 9:19 left in the first quarter.

 

Etling and Mariner hooked up again for 16 yards on 3rd-and-13 late in the first quarter. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Birmingham, a defenseless hit on Mariner, tacked on extra yards to push Michigan deeper into Stallions territory. 

 

Bates finished the drive with another field goal, this time from 42 yards out, to give the Panthers a 12-0 lead heading into the second quarter, their biggest lead against Birmingham this season. It was also the first time this season Michigan held Birmingham scoreless through the first 15 minutes. 

 

Birmingham’s offense started to find success in the second quarter, as Adrian Martinez connected with tight end Jace Sternberger for a gain of 38. Later in the drive on third-and-goal, corner Keith Gipson Jr. broke up a jump ball to Jordan Thomas to keep the Stallions out of the endzone. Despite 75 passing yards from Martinez on the drive, Michigan held Birmingham to a 23-yard Chris Blewitt field goal. 

 

Michigan’s offense did not skip a beat, running their way into Stallions territory with a 25-yard Nate McCrary rumble. The Panthers had to settle for another field goal, a 39-yard boot from Bates for his third make of the game to keep their 12-point lead.

 

Dawkins continued his dominant performance with a sack fumble on Martinez, which Ron’Dell Carter recovered on Birmingham’s 15-yard line. The Stallions still found a way to keep Michigan out of the endzone, as Bates kicked his fourth field goal of the game to lead 18-3.

 

Birmingham started their ensuing drive on the 50 after a Bates kickoff out of bounds, and Martinez made the Panthers pay with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Thomas on the first play of the drive. The two-point attempt was unsuccessful, but the touchdown gave the Stallions some momentum.

 

With 1:56 before halftime, Bates attempted his fifth field goal of the first half, but he pulled the 51-attempt wide left. The Stallions took advantage of the miss with a make of their own from 43 yards, making it nine unanswered points heading into the break, but Michigan still led 18-12.

 

After a nice kickoff return, Birmingham’s offense took over at Michigan’s 43-yard line to open the third quarter. Martinez took a deep shot on their first play, but corner Adonis Alexander met the ball at the apex for an interception and came down at Michigan’s one-yard line. Alexander had one interception during the regular season and potentially saved a touchdown with another takeaway.

 

Facing fourth down, Michigan pulled out a successful fake punt when safety Kai Nacua completed an 18-yard pass to safety Kendrick Whitehead Jr. On the very next play, however, Etling was stripped and sacked, and Birmingham recovered the loose ball for their first takeaway of the game. 

 

The Panthers defense took the ball right back two plays later with a Walter Palmore forced fumble on Martinez, which was recovered by Mike Tafua at Michigan’s 45-yard line. Etling and Co. could not do anything with the gift, punting the ball away to the Stallions after three plays.

 

Birmingham and Michigan continued to go back and forth with turnovers with three interceptions in five plays. Etling’s second interception of the sequence resulted in a 48-yard game-tying pick six by Daniel Isom. It was the sixth turnover of the quarter between both teams. The one-point conversion was unsuccessful, making it an even 18-18 heading into the fourth quarter.

 

Corral threw a 43-yard pass to Gary Jennings to start the fourth quarter. He finished the drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Amari Rodgers for Birmingham’s first lead of the game. The one-point conversion was unsuccessful, but they led 24-18.

 

Michigan tried to get something to go their way, but Birmingham kept their momentum with a blocked field goal on Bates on a 44-yard attempt. The Panthers were unable to get on the board in the second half, falling to Birmingham in back-to-back weeks in games Michigan led the majority of.

 

Etling completed 18-of-29 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions for the Panthers. Martinez of Birmingham completed 10-of-19 passes for 164 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Corral finished  9-of-11 for 120 yards and two touchdowns.

 

McCrary was Michigan’s leading rusher with 62 yards on 11 attempts. C.J. Marable was the leading rusher for the Stallions with eight rushes for 77 yards.

 

The leading receiver for Michigan was Mariner with four receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown. Marlon Williams caught three balls for 50 yards for Birmingham.

 

The Stallions will advance to the UFL Championship on June 16 at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 PM ET on FOX. They will face either the San Antonio Brahmas or the St. Louis Battlehawks, who will square off in the XFL Conference Championship on Sunday, June 9 at 7 PM ET. 

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