July 14, 2010

1985: Stars Defeat Invaders in Final USFL Title Game

The championship game of the United States Football League on July 14, 1985 was billed as the circuit’s last as a spring entity, but ultimately it was the USFL’s final contest altogether. There were 49,263 fans on hand at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ for the matchup between the Baltimore Stars and Oakland Invaders.

The Stars, reigning USFL champions who had moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore in preparation for the switch to fall, used the familiar formula under Head Coach Jim Mora to return to the title game for the third time. QB Chuck Fusina competently guided the offense. RB Kelvin Bryant rushed for 1207 yards and caught 40 passes for 407 more. WR Scott Fitzkee had his most productive season, catching 73 passes for 882 yards. The opportunistic defense, featuring LB Sam Mills, DE William Fuller, and S Mike Lush, was still one of the best.

However, the Stars weren’t as dominant in the regular season as they had been the previous two years in Philadelphia (31-5 overall), starting slowly and ending up in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 10-7-1 record. The fact that the team continued to train in Philadelphia while playing 40 miles from Baltimore at the University of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium likely contributed to the club’s on-field difficulties. They had to win two postseason games on the road, against the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions, to make it back to the championship game.

Oakland benefited from a merger with the Michigan Panthers following the ’84 season which greatly improved the team’s nucleus. Head Coach Charlie Sumner inherited QB Bobby Hebert, who relegated Fred Besana to the bench as he ranked second in passing yards with 3811 and third with 30 TD passes, and WR Anthony Carter, who caught 70 passes for 1323 yards and 14 touchdowns. The other wide receiver, Gordon Banks, prospered by pulling in 62 catches for 1115 yards and another five scores.

The Invaders accumulated the USFL’s best record, 13-4-1, in winning the Western Conference. They narrowly defeated the Tampa Bay Bandits in the first round of the playoffs and then won against the Memphis Showboats to gain a spot in the title contest.

The game began in a heavy rain, to the benefit of the more conservative Stars. Baltimore scored first on a 16-yard pass play from Fusina to Fitzkee. However, Oakland was able to take advantage of the slippery throwing conditions as safety David Greenwood picked off an errant pass by Fusina and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. The score stood even at 7-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Kelvin Bryant scored twice in the second quarter, on runs of 7 and 17 yards, with a one-yard TD by Oakland RB John Williams in between. The Stars held a 21-14 advantage at halftime and the Invaders offense had been able to put together only one scoring drive. Well defended by Stars CB Garcia Lane, Anthony Carter contributed just one catch for four yards.

The situation changed in the third quarter. First, Novo Bojovic connected on a 19-yard field goal for the Panthers. Then Carter began to get loose on crossing patterns, and Hebert connected with him for a seven-yard TD pass that staked Oakland to a 24-21 lead.

In the fourth quarter the Stars put together a drive that resulted in Bryant’s third touchdown of the game (pictured at top) on a 7-yard run. With time running down, the Invaders took over on their four yard line and methodically moved downfield. Williams made key runs and Hebert completed a 28-yard pass to Carter on yet another crossing pattern, and with 2:50 remaining on the clock Oakland faced a third-and-two situation at the Baltimore five.

Williams carried and was stopped for no gain by Sam Mills, but even more significantly, FB Tom Newton was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Instead of facing a fourth-and-two situation, it was now third-and-17. Hebert threw two incomplete passes and the Stars clinched the 28-24 win.

Kelvin Bryant was the game’s MVP, rushing 23 times for 103 yards and three TDs as well as leading the club with five catches for another 56 yards. Struggling with a slippery football, neither quarterback had a particularly strong showing. Chuck Fusina completed 15 of 26 passes for 155 yards with the one costly interception. Bobby Hebert was successful on just 14 of 30 throws for 187 yards with a TD and an interception. John Williams led the Invaders with 96 rushing yards on 13 carries while Anthony Carter was the top receiver with 5 catches for 74 yards and a TD.

Overall, Oakland won the statistical battle, outrushing the Stars 155 yards to 150 and gaining 177 net passing yards to 124. But they committed eight penalties to Baltimore’s four, including the costly flag on Newton.

An angry Coach Sumner said afterward, “It had been a rough game. They’d been calling offsetting penalties all night. How could they call it on just one guy?” But Newton admitted, “I was just too aggressive.”

The closely-fought championship game provided a fitting conclusion to the USFL’s existence, although no one knew it at the time. The league’s planned move to the fall for 1986 ended up not happening. While the league won an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, instead of being awarded a large settlement, it received just three dollars in damages. With overall debt topping $160 million, the USFL folded a year after Kelvin Bryant scored the last touchdown in its three-year history.