Shea Patterson's rally falls short as Michigan Panthers lose USFL opener

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

A football team "from" Michigan comes oh so close to pulling off the comeback, only to lose in the end by mere inches, done in by a series of ill-timed gaffes.

Please, stop us if you've heard this one before.

Michigan Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson (2) scrambles away from pressure by Houston Gamblers defensive lineman Azeem Victor (3) during the first half of a USFL football game Sunday, April 17, 2022, in Birmingham, Ala.

Former Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson looked equal parts good and bad in his United States Football League debut, but did rally the Michigan Panthers back from a 17-0 deficit at halftime and got his team in prime position for the winning score, only to make a pivotal mistake late in a 17-12 loss to the Houston Gamblers in on Easter Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama.

On the Panthers' final play, Patterson threw up a Hail Mary and found La'Michael Pettway in the back right of the end zone, where Pettway leaped and caught it but could only get one foot inbounds. Even if he'd got both feet in, a chop-block penalty on the Panthers would've negated it, and that was the ballgame.

"Since our arrival here 3½, four weeks ago, the one thing that was going through my mind on a daily basis is, how do we measure up and how do we compare against the other seven teams, just because of the unknown and the lack of familiarity with their rosters, what they're doing," said Jeff Fisher, the Panthers' head coach and longtime NFL head coach.

Michigan Panthers running back Cameron Scarlett (15) carries the ball abasing the Houston Gamblers during the second half of a USFL football game Sunday, April 17, 2022, in Birmingham, Ala.

"A lot of those questions, at least from my perspective, were answered today. We did some really good things. We got some things done in a short period of time that I'm especially proud of.

"Now, in the game of football, you don't turn the football over like we did and win very many (games)."

The Panthers' two turnovers came early in the second quarter, with the Panthers' on the Gamblers' 4.

On second-and-goal, Patterson stepped back to pass and was drilled by Houston's Ahmad Gooden, forcing the fumble. Reggie Northrup, a former Florida State player who went on to a career in MMA, scooped it up and raced 95 yards for the touchdown, and a 9-0 Houston lead.

On the next drive, Paxton Lynch, a former first-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos in 2016, replaced Patterson and was sacked, again by Gooden, and fumbled, and Houston recovered. On the next possession, Lynch threw an interception.

Patterson played the entire second half, but Fisher said it remains a two-quarterback competition.

Michigan Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson fumbles in the first quarter of a USFL game Sunday, leading to a Houston Gamblers touchdown.

Fisher took some of the blame for the quarterback issues early, as the communication system between coaches and the QBs broke down several times, causing chaos.

"Both of them are gonna play," Fisher said. "We just have to minimize some of these mistakes."

Houston took a 17-0 lead into halftime, though that's only a two-score difference in the USFL, where after touchdowns you can go for one, two or three points.

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In his halftime speech, which aired on the NBC broadcast, Fisher rallied the Panthers, telling him the most important opponent is themselves.

The Panthers then came out hot after the break, after a first half in which the offense's drives finished as such: punt, punt, fumble, punt, fumble, interception, end of half.

To open the second half, Patterson led a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive, capped by an 8-yard Patterson pass to Lance Lenoir — the first points by the Michigan Panthers since the 1980s (though this league isn't affiliated with the defunct one, despite using old team nicknames). Michigan missed the conversion attempt, and on the following drive missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt. Those plays proved the difference in the end.

Michigan's defense, which includes former Eastern Michigan linebacker Terry Myrick, forced two punts to open the second half.

After the second, Patterson guided a nine-play, 66-yard touchdown drive, which started with a 29-yard pass to Devin Ross and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by former Indiana Hoosier Stevie Scott (72 yards rushing) — and, in between, saw Patterson scramble for a 10-yard run. Again, the conversion failed.

Then, Michigan's Jameson Houston picked off a pass from Houston quarterback Clayton Thorson, giving the Panthers' new life.

Four plays later, Michigan turned it over on downs when Patterson couldn't pick up the yard — yard-and-a-half, really — on fourth down. Fisher bemoaned that call afterward.

"The  quarterbacks will bounce back, they'll compete this week in practice and we'll see what happens," Fisher said. "I like this team. They'll bounce back."

Michigan had the one last chance to win the game, after the defense forced another punt.

Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson (2) fumbles the ball as he is sacked by Houston Gamblers defensive lineman Ahmad Gooden (99) during the first half Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama.

And on the final drive, Patterson had led the Panthers' to the Gamblers' 14, before he fumbled a snap, pushing the Panthers back to the 21. On the next play, he was sacked, back to the Gamblers' 30. Then, a pair of incomplete passes closed out another wild and entertaining game in the rebooted USFL, the latest attempt to make spring football stick.

Earlier in the drive, Patterson had completed four passes for 52 yards, finishing 17-for-24 for 192 yards in the game, which was delayed by thunderstorms in the area. He threw for one touchdown and no interceptions, and rushed for 31 yards.

Lynch finished 2-for-5 for 1 yard and the interception.

Michigan next plays the New Jersey Generals at 8 p.m. Friday in a game that will air on USA, and again be played in Birmingham. All the regular-season games will be played in Birmingham this year in a cost-conscious move, with a tentative plan to move all the teams to their respective markets in 2023.

"Personally for me, it was a blast," said Fisher, who last coached the Los Angeles Rams in 2016.

"We have some athletes."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984