For a moment it appeared the “Kaw-diac” ‘Hawks had struck again.

A.J. McCarron and wide receiver Marcell Ateman awakened a slumbering Battlehawks’ offense to grab the lead in the final moments of the 2024 UFL season opener at Ford Field on Saturday – just as McCarron and Austin Proehl did in St. Louis’ dazzling debut victory in San Antonio last season.

Trailing the Michigan Panthers 15-9 with less than two minutes remaining, Ateman won a contested ball on fourth-and-10 that put St. Louis at the Michigan 4-yard-line. Then on fourth-and-goal, it was McCarron to Ateman again for the go-ahead score with 49 seconds left.

Even casual spring football watchers know what happened next.

Panthers’ kicker Jake Bates – a kickoff specialist that hadn’t converted a field goal attempt in college or the pros – had enough horsepower to split the uprights in the Motor City from 64 yards away.

Final from Detroit: Michigan 18, St. Louis 16.

“Listen, they make a 64-yard field goal. Hats off to them,” a sweaty and stunned McCarron told the media afterwards.

The shock dissolved by Monday morning, but the bitter aftertaste of missed opportunities earlier in the game lingered.

The Panthers clung to a 7-3 lead as the fourth quarter began, but a promising offensive sequence had the Battlehawks in business.

McCarron (24-of-37 for 216 yards and 2 TDs) found scat back Jacob Saylors for a 19-yard gain, then hooked up with tight end Jake Sutherland who lumbered into the red zone. After consecutive short gains, St. Louis faced third-and-2 from the Michigan 7-yard line.

Saylors (6 carries, 9 yards) tested a bruising Panthers front that had bullied the Battlehawks’ run game all afternoon, and he was stopped short as the third quarter expired. During the TV timeout, head coach Anthony Becht mulled the play call for fourth-and-inches.

“I know there’s a lot of people watching TV (saying) ‘put it in A.J.’s hands’ – at the end of the day, here’s the thing. Early in the season, I want my offensive line to know I got their ass, and I got their back,” Becht said.

“I trust those guys to get up on the line of scrimmage and block it up.”

Wayne Gallman (13 carries, 40 yards) took the handoff and stutter stepped. Beefy DT Walter Palmore had split the Battlehawks’ zone blocking scheme, and big No. 99 greeted Gallman at the line of scrimmage.

Turnover on downs.

“They were able to penetrate on the backside of that run. Our back didn’t quite get through low enough to get that yard. To me, when you’re talking about less than a foot, I just don’t think that’s a down where you pass.”

“That’s my mindset. Now moving forward, as we get into the season, of course – what are our strengths? But when you’re less than a foot…let’s knuckle up. They know we’re doing it…come off the ball and get the 11 inches we need for the first down.”

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – MARCH 30: Marcell Ateman #3 of the St. Louis Battlehawks celebrates after catching a pass for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Michigan Panthers at Ford Field on March 30, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/UFL/Getty Images)

St. Louis’ best drive of the game was a 16-play odyssey that consumed 87 yards and nearly eight minutes but yielded just three points.

McCarron completed nine passes to eight different receivers and St. Louis marched from their own 5-yard-line to the Panthers’ 22 with under a minute before halftime.

The Battlehawks took a shot to the endzone for Ateman (6 catches for 60 yards, 1 TD) that fell incomplete. McCarron dumped a pass to Ja’Marcus Bradley for a short loss on second down, then on third-and-11, Gallman rushed for a 5-yard-gain.

St. Louis settled for a 36-yard field goal from Andre Szmyt as the first half expired to break a scoreless tie.

The Battlehawks drive to open the second half stalled at midfield and Michigan quickly capitalized. Panthers’ quarterback E.J. Perry gashed St. Louis for 30- and 41-yard completions, then capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.

The score remained 7-3 until McCarron connected with Sutherland for a 5-yard scoring strike with 8:01 to go in the fourth quarter. Michigan needed less than three minutes to respond, as Perry again scrambled into the endzone to complete a 5-play, 56-yard drive. Perry found Devin Ross for the two-pointer and Michigan led 15-9 with 5:01 left.

St. Louis won the turnover battle and possessed the football for 7+ minutes longer than Michigan did. But Bates’ heroics dampened the mood a little leading up to St. Louis’ home opener on Saturday night.

“Coming off a loss, nothing really correlates to the next week,” Becht said.

“For me to be pissed off and walk on eggshells and not look at my players after a loss would be crazy. It’s a long season…we know we’re good. We have to fix what we’ve done wrong and we have to execute better.

There still has to be enthusiasm and positive vibes around.”

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505