March 12, 2011

1983: Wranglers Mount Late Rally to Stun Blitz

Entering the United States Football League’s first season, the Chicago Blitz were identified as the team most likely to dominate the new league. They had the best-known head coach in George Allen and, following the pattern Allen had established with the teams he coached in the NFL, the club also had much veteran talent on the roster. An easy win over the Washington Federals in the season-opening game only seemed to confirm that Chicago was the team to beat.

The Blitz entered their second game, a Saturday night contest on March 12, 1983, as 13-point favorites against the Arizona Wranglers, a team that had been shut out in Week One. Coached by Doug Shively, the Wranglers seemed to be as bereft of talent as Chicago was loaded with it. As much as could be discerned at such an early point in the USFL’s development, the game appeared to be a classic mismatch. Arizona did make one significant move, however - Todd Krueger started at quarterback in the opening game, and was replaced by Alan Risher (pictured above), a rookie out of LSU, who was given the start against the Blitz.

There were 28,434 in attendance at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe – far less than the 45,167 present for the opener. For the first three quarters, it seemed as though the Blitz would breeze to another win. While Jim Asmus, who had missed two short field goal attempts the week before and was nearly replaced, booted a 22-yard field goal in the first quarter to start the scoring, Chicago responded with a 15-yard touchdown pass from 15th-year veteran QB Greg Landry to WR Lenny Willis to make the score 7-3.

Frank Corral kicked a 30-yard field goal for the Blitz in the second quarter, and the score was 10-6 at halftime after Asmus kicked another field goal for Arizona, from 35 yards. In the third quarter, it seemed as though Chicago had the game under control. Landry threw another TD pass, of 12 yards to TE Paul Ricker (the extra point attempt failed), and while the Wranglers scored on a six-yard Risher touchdown pass to WR Mike Smith (the PAT attempt was blocked), the Blitz scored again on a one-yard TD run by RB Kevin Long.

It was 23-12 after three quarters, and when Landry threw a third touchdown pass, of 15 yards to Ricker (and despite yet another failed try for an extra point), Chicago held a seemingly insurmountable lead of 29-12 with 11:23 remaining to play.

However, Risher and the Arizona offense dominated the rest of the final period. The Wranglers put together an 85-yard drive that was capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to WR Jackie Flowers. They went for a two-point conversion, and in a thrilling (and key) play, Risher dropped back some 30 yards while eluding Chicago pass rushers and finally threw to TE Mark Keel, who caught the ball just inside the end zone. The Blitz lead was narrowed to 29-20.

Following a short punt by Corral, the Wranglers regained possession with good field position at the Chicago 45. They took full advantage, with Risher again using his mobility to excellent advantage to frustrate the rush and make plays, and drove to a nine-yard scoring pass from the rookie quarterback to WR Neil Balholm that made it a two-point game.

There were now under three minutes remaining, and in a key defensive series, Arizona prevented the Blitz from controlling the ball. After Landry was sacked for ten yards on a third down play, Corral again got off a short punt and the Wranglers had one last chance.

On the ensuing drive, Risher showed great poise, running 12 yards for a first down at one point and completing passes to Keel of nine and eight yards to set up a last field goal attempt by Asmus. Asmus connected from 33 yards with one second remaining, and Arizona came away with the biggest upset of the new league’s brief history by a score of 30-29.

The game was very sloppy, with a total of 30 penalties called (a whopping 20 on the Wranglers to 10 on Chicago), and between the flags and a total of 77 passes thrown by the teams, it took some four hours to play. Arizona outgained the Blitz both on the ground (151 yards to 90) and through the air (289 to 256), although Chicago had more first downs (26 to 25). Each team turned the ball over one time apiece. But while Jim Asmus made up for his poor kicking performance the week prior, Chicago’s veteran punter/placekicker Frank Corral, who had suffered an injury in practice the day before, missed two extra points and punted poorly, averaging just 32.3 yards on his three kicks.

Alan Risher completed 28 of 40 passes for 269 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions and ran for 40 yards on six carries. Neil Balholm caught 9 passes for 91 yards and a TD while Mark Keel contributed 6 receptions for 69 yards. RB Steve Howell led the Wranglers in rushing with 49 yards on 11 attempts.

For Chicago, Greg Landry was successful on 24 of 36 passes for 268 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. WR Wamon Buggs caught 7 passes for 96 yards. Kevin Long ran for 45 yards on 11 carries while rookie RB Tim Spencer contributed 40 yards on 14 attempts.

“I've been around football 25 years and I've never seen one quite like this,” said Arizona’s Coach Shively. “I actually gave up two or three times.”

“They (the Blitz) kind of classified this as their exhibition game,” Jim Asmus added. “We had to show them.”

“We took off our blitzing because Risher rolled out and hit consistently,” explained George Allen. “If he practiced that two-point play, he couldn't have pulled it off any better.”

Arizona got off to a 4-4 start to contend early in the Pacific Division, but collapsed thereafter, losing 10 straight to close out the schedule. The final result was 4-14 and a last place finish.

Chicago showed a tendency to lose late leads throughout the season, but ended with a 12-6 record to place second in the Central Division and qualify for a wild card spot in the playoffs. The Blitz lost to the Philadelphia Stars in the Semifinal round – in a game in which the Stars came from behind to force a tie and then won in overtime.

Alan Risher ranked sixth among USFL passers for the year, completing 55.7 percent of his 424 passes for 2672 yards and more touchdowns (20) than interceptions (16). While he was bothered by a sore shoulder and showed signs of wear as the season wore on, he proved to be a good addition on offense.