April 7, 2011

1984: Outlaws Take Advantage of Turnovers to Beat Panthers

The Michigan Panthers, defending champions of the United States Football League, had won their first six games of the 1984 season and 12 straight going back to ’83. However, they had also suffered a significant loss offensively the previous week when star WR Anthony Carter went down for the remainder of the year with a broken arm.

On April 7, the Panthers faced the first-year Oklahoma Outlaws in a Saturday contest at Skelly Stadium. The Outlaws, under Head Coach Woody Widenhofer and led by veteran QB Doug Williams (pictured above), were off to a 4-2 start, and all four of their wins came when it was either raining or snowing. For the Saturday game against Michigan, attended by 21,510 hardy fans, the weather featured rain and wind.

Williams scored the initial touchdown of the game on a one-yard run in the first quarter, capping a short drive of 28 yards in three plays. In the opening moments of the second quarter, Michigan DB John Arnaud blocked a Case deBruijn punt and LB Will Cokeley returned it 25 yards to even the score.

Oklahoma put together a nine-play, 47-yard drive capped by FB Sidney Thornton scoring a TD on a one-yard plunge to put the Outlaws back in front at 14-7, but the score was tied at halftime after Michigan QB Bobby Hebert ended a short, 12-yard scoring drive by connecting with TE Mike Cobb for an eight-yard touchdown.

Oklahoma’s veteran placekicker Efren Herrera broke the tie ten minutes into the third quarter with a field goal. The Panthers, burdened by turnovers and sloppy play, seemed unable to mount a threat.

However, Michigan drove 76 yards to a game-tying field goal of 28 yards by Novo Bojovic with 2:13 remaining to play in the fourth quarter. Still, they had settled for three points after WR Derek Holloway dropped a pass in the end zone that could have given the defending champs the lead.

The Outlaws had to punt following the ensuing possession, but CB Bobby Futrell of the Panthers muffed it and Oklahoma recovered at the Michigan 11 with 55 seconds left. Three plays ran the clock down and set up the game-winning field goal attempt. Herrera did not disappoint, kicking a 32-yard field goal on the game’s last play for the 20-17 win – it was the second straight contest in which the veteran of eight NFL seasons booted a field goal in the final seconds for an Oklahoma victory.

The Panthers were victimized by turnovers, fumbling the ball away four times and suffering four interceptions, with seven of them coming in the second half. Neither club generated much offense, combining for a total of 99 yards on the ground (62 on 21 attempts by Michigan, 37 on 31 carries by the Outlaws), 230 through the air (the Panthers had the edge by 123 to 107), and 19 first downs (Michigan once again led, 10 to 9). But Oklahoma turned the ball over just three times (they had seven fumbles, only two of which were lost).

Doug Williams completed 12 of 33 passes for 115 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. Sidney Thornton (pictured at left) led the team’s miniscule running attack with 32 yards on 16 carries and also caught the most passes (4) for 24 yards. TE Ron Wheeler gained 44 yards on his three pass receptions.

Bobby Hebert, who had played so well during the team’s winning streak, had a rough performance as he was successful on just 13 of 34 passes for 144 yards and four interceptions as opposed to only one TD. RB Ken Lacy led the team both in rushing (40 yards on 11 carries) and pass receiving (three for 57 yards).

The loss to the Outlaws signaled a nosedive by the defending champions as they lost their next three games and won only four more times. They just made it into the playoffs as a wild card team with a 10-8 record, losing in triple overtime to the Los Angeles Express in the first round. Oklahoma, after showing promise in the first half of the season, advanced to 6-2 the following week against Washington but then proceeded to lose the remaining ten games to end up in fourth place in the Central Division at 6-12. Poor defensive play and the lack of an effective running game proved to be the team’s undoing.