Mistakes that defined the 2024 USFL conference championship

With 3:59 left in the second quarter, the Michigan Panthers held an impressive 18-3 lead over the visiting Birmingham Stallions.

Less than two quarters later, they trailed 31-18 after allowing 28 unanswered points to the Stallions, who punched their ticket to the UFL Championship with Saturday’s victory.

What went wrong for Michigan after such a dominant first half?

Well, the problems started long before the second half began. In fact, while the Birmingham QB’s late adjustment was the nail in the coffin, it was his resilience in the first half that ultimately led to the comeback.

Michigan’s self-inflicted wounds

The Michigan Panthers will be kicking themselves all offseason after this loss, simply because they controlled their own destiny in this game and did everything they could to make it difficult for each other.

The mistakes actually started piling up on the Panthers’ second drive of the game. After its defense forced Birmingham to turn the ball over, Michigan proceeded to make a three and go, settling for its first field goal. On 3rd and 3 during this drive, Danny Etling missed a wide open Siaosi Mariner, which would be the first of many errant shots by Etling in this game.

The story of this first half for the Panthers was their inability to close out the game early. After its first touchdown, Michigan attempted five field goals. As predicted, this would catch up with them.

Another mistake in the first quarter ended what should have been a drive that resulted in a touchdown. On second and six from the Birmingham 27-yard line, Matt Colburn failed to maintain possession during the handoff and was tackled for a loss of six yards, and Michigan had to kick another field goal. A similar moment would happen on the next possession. Colburn ran for a three-yard loss on 2nd-and-2, and then Etling completely missed Trey Quinn on third down.

Fast forward a bit and special teams would suddenly prove to be a problem. After a made field goal to take an 18-3 lead, Jake Bates would kick out of bounds, giving the Stallions the ball at the 50-yard line. After what was a putrid first half for the Birmingham offense, The next play was a 50-yard throw to Jordan Thomas, and just like that it was a one-score game.

The second half falls apart

While Michigan “dominated” the first half, its mistakes in the second quarter set the tone for the ultimate collapse in the final periods. They went into halftime with just a six-point lead, as a pass interference penalty on Nate Brooks allowed Birmingham to kick another field goal.

In the second half, these trends continued and were magnified. Small mistakes turned into big mistakes and Michigan just couldn’t overcome them. Even after successfully executing a fake punt, the Panthers fumbled and Etling fumbled on the next play.

Danny Etling, in particular, put this team in a deep hole in the second half. His first interception was a terrible overthrow for Devin Gray. In some ways, his second choice was even worse. Instead of throwing it to an open Marcus Simms on the bench, Etling forced the ball into a window that didn’t exist, resulting in a pick six by Daniel Isom, tying the game.

It seemed like Danny didn’t trust himself or his decision making in the second half. An example of this was on 2nd and 7, when Etling rolled to the right and had a couple of open receivers, but decided to throw it to a well-covered Cole Hikutini. While it seems like a very small piece of a bigger picture, it is these small details that ultimately gave Birmingham complete control of this game of football.

Additionally, Nate McCrary barely touched the ball in the second half. It was a strange strategy, given all the success he had in the first two quarters. Of course, with very little momentum, OC Marcel Bellefeuille probably felt more pressure to throw the ball, but Michigan’s bread and butter was running the ball, and they stopped doing that at a crucial point in the game.

Birmingham dominance in the final quarter

After doing everything they could all afternoon, Michigan’s defense collapsed in the fourth quarter. It’s hard to blame them, given how exhausted they were with very little offensive support. Matt Corral, coming into the game, surprised this unit, after having defended so well against Adrián Martínez. Corral’s bomb to Gary Jennings to open the fourth quarter opened up this offense in a way it hadn’t been all day, and that marked the beginning of the end for the Panthers.

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The Stallions would score 13 more points in the fourth quarter, taking the win over the Panthers 31-18. Michigan’s only decent drive of the half resulted in a Bates field goal that was blocked. Even then, a couple of earlier mental mistakes (like Etling’s dangerous pass on third down) once again prevented Michigan from putting points on the board.

You have to give a lot of credit to Corey Chamblin and the job he did on defense. As mentioned above, the Panthers had a chance to go up 20-30 points in the first half, but settled for field goals again and again. Corey’s defense held the Panthers to just 2/12 in third down situations. His lack of production in the red zone, or whenever they got close, showed that his unit was bending, but not breaking.

If it hadn’t been for Birmingham’s defensive efforts, his return likely wouldn’t even have been possible, no matter who was at quarterback. If Michigan’s offense kept pace and didn’t shoot themselves in the foot, they would have had over 30 points in the first half alone.

Final thoughts

This weekend was a perfect example of the resilience and culture that head coach Skip Holtz has built in Birmingham. With their championship pedigree, the Stallions remained focused and diligent throughout the entire process, even when things looked disastrous.

There were so many points in this match where Birmingham could have thrown in the towel. That first half was as ugly as it gets, but despite all their mistakes (i.e. 11 penalties), they turned the tide and capitalized on Michigan’s shortcomings.

Now, the Birmingham Stallions will take on the San Antonio Brahmas this Sunday in an effort to win their third consecutive spring football championship.

Final Note: One has to wonder how this game would have played out if Michigan had decided to rest QB Bryce Perkins in Week 10…

What do you think about Michigan’s fallout in the second half of this game? What did this victory say about the character of Birmingham? Let us know in the comments below or join the conversation on Discord!