Michigan Panthers' USFL debut at Ford Field spoiled in 28-13 loss to New Jersey Generals

The first offensive snap of the game had yet to happen, but fans were on their feet.

"Let's go Panthers!" they chanted. "Let's go Panthers!"

But that was the best moment of the day in the Michigan Panthers' return to its home state 40 years after winning the inaugural USL championship. The New Jersey Generals scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions, averaged nearly 10 yards per play and ran over the previously undefeated Panthers, 28-13, Sunday afternoon at Ford Field.

"I thought they were awesome, I really do," Panthers coach Mike Nolan said of the approximately 7,500 fans on hand. "To be perfectly frank with you that's one of the disappointments I had, is to not have a better showing for the people that were here.

"I hope they come back and support us and continue to believe in us, because we're a much better football team than what we did today."

Josh Love started for Michigan and went 15-for-31 for 101 yards and one interception. Carson Strong came in for the final two drives of the first half and went 4-for-9 for 62 yards and one touchdown.

Trey Quinn had five catches for 61 yards and a score, Stevie Scott III ran 12 times for 63 yards and Reggie Corbin added 38 rushing yards and 27 receiving yards before he suffered a fourth-quarter shoulder injury on a kick return and missed the rest of the game.

Michigan Panthers quarterback Josh Love passes against the New Jersey Generals during the first half Sunday, April 30, 2023 at Ford Field.

Generals quarterback De'Andre Johnson stole the show.

The former Florida Atlantic and Texas Southern QB was 10-for-15 passing for 182 yards and two TDs, and ran for 100 yards and a TD. Darius Victor ran five times for 46 yards and caught one pass for 51 yards and a touchdown, and Alonzo Moore caught a 72-yard, back-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers (2-1) return to play next Sunday against the Memphis Showboats at Ford Field at 6:30 p.m.

Can't stop the run early

The season is young, but the Panthers established a solid run defense entering Sunday.

In a season-opening 29-15 win over Houston, the Panthers limited the Gamblers to 98 rushing yards on 27 attempts (3.6 yards per carry). It was even better the following week, as Philadelphia rushed 15 times for 45 yards, a meager three yards per attempt.

New Jersey Generals quarterback De Andre Johnson fumbles during the second half against the Michigan Panthers, Sunday, April 30, 2023 at Ford Field.

That defense was nowhere to be found Sunday afternoon, due in large part to the dual-threat Johnson. The Generals needed just four plays to go 64 yards on their opening drive, before Johnson found Victor on a 51-yard screen pass to take a 7-3 lead.

The next drive was even faster. Johnson kept a read-option up the middle and ran 71 yards before he was tackled from behind by Michigan State grad Josh Butler, saving a touchdown. However it only extended the inevitable by one pay; Johnson kept the ball again around the right edge and waltzed in for a 9-yard TD and 14-3 edge.

"We just didn't gap fit it right," Nolan said of the big play. "It was man coverage so when he broke the line of scrimmage and went down, there were some guys that were looking at their own man, not thinking the quarterback was going to be running down the middle of the defense.

"Came out the backside A-gap, yeah, that was disappointing."

The next drive showed some improvement; the defense forced a third down and even a fourth down as time ran out in the first quarter, but on the first play of the second quarter, Victor squirted through a gap on fourth-and-1 and outran the defense 35 yards for the score.

New Jersey in the first half ran 11 times for 146 yards (13.3 yards per carry) and two scores.

Can't flip the momentum

Michigan Panthers running back Steve Scott III (2) is tackled by New Jersey Generals linebacker Chris Orr (2) during the first half Sunday, April 30, 2023 at Ford Field.

Things were starting to get out of reach when Nolan put Strong in for Love late in the second quarter.

He found Quinn for a gain of 10 on his first pass of the day, then completed two more passes before a pass interference call got the Panthers down to the Generals 28. On third-and-10, he found Quinn who ran a slant route from the right slot and took it the distance to make it 21-10 entering halftime.

On the other side of the half, Love and the defense came out with a different demeanor.

The Panthers forced a three-and-out, before Love and the offense controlled the clock. The drive only ended with three points, but the Panthers took nearly 10 minutes of the clock on the 15-play drive to get within one score.

The next time the Generals got the ball it appeared as if they went three-and-out for the second consecutive possession, but the Panthers were flagged and the drive extended. On third-and-5, UAB grad Garrett Marino sacked Johnson and ripped the ball out, which the Panthers recovered.

However, they failed to take advantage; the offense took nine plays to go 11 yards before Love was intercepted on third-and-20. On the next play, the Generals used play action, where Johnson found Moore on a bomb down the right sideline.

Michigan Panthers receiver Ishmael Hyman (13) is tackled by New Jersey Generals free safety Dravon Askew-Henry (7) during the first half Sunday, April 30, 2023 at Ford Field.

"I thought that's when the game changed," Nolan said. "I really thought prior to that play, we were in it."

The Panthers turned the ball over on downs on the ensuing possession.

Stars on hand

Shortly after the Detroit Tigers finished their 5-3 loss at Comerica Park, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Tarik Skubal and Jake Rogers strolled across the street to take in some of the action.

Detroit Pistons legend Ben Wallace served as honorary captain and delivered the game ball, and Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson was also in attendance.

Contact Tony Garcia at Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan Panthers' USFL Ford Field debut spoiled in 28-13 loss