Game Preview: Michigan Panthers at D.C. Defenders, Sunday 12 May, 2024

  • Michigan Panthers (4-2) at D.C. Defenders (3-3)
  • When: Sunday, May 12
  • Time: 12 p.m. ET
  • Audi Field (Washington, D.C.)
  • Network: ESPN
  • Announcers: Lowell Galindo (Play-by-play), Tom Luginbill (Analyst), Harry Douglas (Sideline Analyst), Kayla Burton (Sideline Reporter)

Injury Report/Depth Charts


The Panthers barely scraped by the at-the-time winless Renegades last week, winning 29-28 on a walk-off field goal. With the team’s win against Arlington, Michigan is on its first winning streak of the season with a 4-2 record. Getting a win on the road against the evenly matched Defenders would be huge for Mike Nolan’s team’s playoff hopes.

Meanwhile, the Defenders did just enough in their 18-12 win against the Brahmas last week, a result which will go a long way in the UFL playoff race. The game came down to the final minute. 

Dating back to 2023, nine of D.C.’s twelve wins have been in games determined within one possession. Overall, the Defenders are 9-2 in games determined by nine points or fewer. I think it’s safe to say Reggie Barlow’s squad has been able to buckle down when it matters down the stretch to secure victories.

Considering how similar D.C. and Michigan are talent-wise, I’m expecting a tightly contested battle here. In the end, it will come down to who makes fewer unforced errors throughout the game, and then which team can execute better in crunch-time.

Michigan Panthers

The Panthers’ offense has been well-operating through two games since Danny Etling took over at quarterback after E.J Perry went to the Injured Reserve. In games that Etling has started, Michigan is 2-0, averaging 31.5 points and 293.0 offensive yards per game against the Showboats and Renegades.  He has gone 41-for-65 passing with 481 yards and two touchdowns

Considering Etling has faced two of the UFL’s lesser defenses, Memphis and Arlington, this week’s matchup against D.C. would have been his biggest test yet. However, this won’t be the case as Etling is listed as Michigan’s emergency quarterback this week due to injury. Rather, former Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke will get the first start of his professional career on Sunday. 

Lewerke should be just as mobile, if not more, than Etling, who has scampered for 152 yards. Navigating the pocket; making good, smart throws; and knowing when to scramble are three basic things all good quarterbacks should be able to do. The better and more consistent Lewerke can do these things today for the Panthers, the better off they will be from an offensive standpoint. 

When in doubt, getting the ball to your top playmakers never hurts. The Panthers’ offensive game plan undoubtedly emphasizes feeding Marcus Simms and Trey Quinn, Michigan’s No. 1 and No. 2 pass-catchers, as well as relying on the one-two punch of Wes Hills and Matthew Colburn II on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have lost their defensive anchor, linebacker Frank Ginda, to the Injured Reserve. However, Michigan’s top-three PFF-graded defense in the UFL still has enough star-power to go around. By no means is Michigan’s defensive unit outmatched by D.C.’s offense, which hasn’t been anything special, especially compared to last year.

Kai Nacua, one of the best safeties in the UFL, leads the league in interceptions, with three, and has been all over the field making tackles for the Panthers this season, with 32. Noah Dawkins (30 tackles) and former All-USFL safety Bryce Torneden (24 tackles) are additional forces to look out for in Michigan’s front seven, while Breeland Speaks is one of the best edge rushers in the league, tied for fourth in sacks made (4 ½).

The Panthers have been good all season at stopping the run, conceding just 78.1 rushing yards per game and allowing just two 100+ yard rushing performances from opposing teams. On the other end, the Defenders’ rushing attack has been below-average this season, so I expect Michigan to win this trench battle.

D.C. Defenders

If the Defenders are going to win this one, it will have to be in low-scoring fashion as last week’s victory against the Brahmas was.

I simply don’t think D.C.’s offense will be able to outmatch an elite Michigan defense. However, I do think D.C.’s defense will stack up well against Michigan’s offense, especially with a new quarterback.

The Defenders’ rushing attack has not found much consistency. Last week was the only week it garnered 100+ rushing yards (110) in a game all season. Darius Hagans, Cam Harris, and Zaquandre White have all been worked into D.C.’s tailback rotation as the Defenders have tried to figure out what works best.

Meanwhile, Jordan Ta’amu just hasn’t looked the same as last year during his XFL Offensive Player of the Year campaign. He has completed 53.6% of his passes, which is down from 62.6% last season. While he was clean last week in the win, he is tied for most interceptions thrown (five) by quarterbacks in the UFL. He is also not on pace to eclipse his passing yardage (1,878) from last season with only 1,076 yards through six games.

Ball security and winning the turnover battle must be a priority for the Defenders in a game that will likely come down to the wire.

Kelvin Harmon, who scored D.C.’s game-winning touchdown last week, has emerged as Ta’amu’s top target over the past few weeks. Expect the Panthers to send double teams at Harmon, who has 25 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns, to keep him from getting going.

Defensively, the Defenders are coming off their best performance of the season against a good Brahmas squad. While John Lovett ran for a UFL-high 153 yards, San Antonio was held to just 79 yards through the air. Even when the Brahmas were able to get drives going, they struggled to finish them off with touchdowns against D.C.’s defense.

Cornerback Michael Joseph, D.C.’s leading tackler (47), forced the game-clinching fumble during San Antonio’s final offensive drive last week. At nickel, he should continue to make plays in defending both the pass and run.

Final Thoughts

There’s not much to say that I haven’t covered already. If you’re a bettor, though, the under may be the play for this matchup, with two good defensive teams.

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