NFC West Writer
CANTON, Ohio — All Corey Coleman wanted was a chance.
Late in the third quarter with his team trailing, Philadelphia Stars quarterback Case Cookus called Coleman’s number, and he made a big play that turned the game.
After a 54-yard missed field goal by Pittsburgh Maulers kicker Chris Blewitt, Cookus found Coleman wide open for a 56-yard pitch and catch for a score — Philadelphia’s longest play of the year — giving the Stars the lead for good in a 37-31 victory on Saturday evening at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
With the win, the Stars earned their third straight victory, improving to 4-3 on the year at the top of the North Division. The Maulers dropped to 2-5.
The play was Coleman’s second TD of the year. He shook loose from Pittsburgh cornerback Keith Gibson Jr. in press coverage at the line of scrimmage. After Gibson fell, Coleman outran Maulers safety Eli Walker to the pylon.
Highlights: Cookus, Coleman lead way for Stars
“I came to Case and Coach (Head Coach Bart Andrus) and said, ‘Let’s go at the left side,’” Coleman said. “That’s just the trust they have in me. We called the play. We got it up and strike up the band.”
The former NFL first-round draft pick out of Baylor finished with four receptions for 75 yards, while fellow Philadelphia receiver Devin Gray also added four receptions for 75 yards.
Cookus finished 18-of-30 for 235 yards with two touchdowns. However, Cookus threw his eighth interception of his season through seven games. He had just five interceptions during the regular season last year.
Entering Saturday’s contest, both teams had struggled to put points on the board, but they combined for 44 points in just the first half. The Maulers scored on four of their first five possessions in the first half but were held to just a touchdown in the second.
The Stars entered Saturday’s contest last in the USFL in rushing but relied on the running game to create balance and move the football. Philadelphia also played fast early on, using tempo to keep one of the Maulers, one of the best defenses in the USFL, off balance.
The Stars entered Saturday’s contest having not scored a touchdown in two games, settling on 11 field goals on 19 drives. But running back Matthew Colburn II ground out 83 yards on 20 carries and two rushing touchdowns.
Philadelphia’s leading rusher last season, Colburn entered Saturday’s contest with just 169 rushing yards through six games.
“At the beginning of the season we kind of started off a little rough in terms of the run game,” Colburn said. “But I believe we’ve gotten better every single week. We’ve focused on our assignments, and we’ve focused on our technique — everything you’ve got to have to have a successful running game. And we’re getting into a real good grove right now.”
Pittsburgh quarterback Troy Williams led the Maulers offensively, finishing 18-of-28 for 145 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Williams also topped the Maulers in rushing with 48 yards.
Receiver Isiah Hennie had a 17-yard touchdown reception and 69-yard punt return late that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Garrett Groshek with 2:01 left in the game, cutting Philadelphia’s lead to 34-31.
The Maulers went for the fourth-and-12 conversion play, but Williams was sacked by Stars edge rusher Adam Rodriguez. Williams was sacked five times.
Aguilar added a 38-yard field goal for the final score. Horton lamented the Maulers missed out on a 58-yard field goal by Blewitt because Pittsburgh was called for a delay of game, which would have meant the Maulers needed just a field goal at the end to tie the game.
Pittsburgh finished with seven accepted penalties for 50 yards and has totaled 17 penalties for 140 yards over the last two games.
“I have to get my team to be more disciplined,” Horton said. “It’s not them, it’s me. I told the team that I apologize for the number of penalties we had. That’s a reflection on me.”
Simmons proves an asset on returns
Kick returner Joshua Simmons had an impactful evening for Pittsburgh on special teams. Simmons had an impressive, 88-yard kick return for a score in the first quarter that put the Maulers up 14-10.
And at the end of the first half, Simmons smartly stepped out of bounds before touching the kickoff down on the 8-yard line that may have stayed in bounds. Instead, Lirim Hajrullahu’s kick was ruled out of bounds, and the Maulers got the ball at midfield.
The Maulers moved the ball to Philadelphia’s 31-yard line and Blewitt made a 49-yard field goal to put Pittsburgh up 24-20 at halftime.
In the second half, Simmons had another big return but was stripped of the ball by Samuel Akem, with Amani Dennis recovering the fumble and returning the ball to the Pittsburgh 48-yard line.
But Simmons was bailed out when Cookus threw an interception to Pittsburgh defensive back Arnold Tarpley III in the end zone.
Philadelphia Stars receiver Terry Wright had to leave the game due to tightness. Early on, Wright had two big returns to put the Stars in good field position to start the game, one for 58 and one for 48 yards.
Cookus also left the game in the first half after appearing to get the wind knocked out of him, falling on the football after getting tripped up by Pittsburgh linebacker Kyahva Tezino. Cookus returned to the field on the next series.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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