April 14, 2011

1984: Young & Townsell Star as LA Defeats Showboats

The Los Angeles Express had been among the least-productive teams offensively during the United States Football League’s first season in 1983, and the club was not doing much better early in ’84. However, the arrival of rookie QB Steve Young, who had signed a huge contract to play in the USFL (10 years, $40 million), marked a change for the better.

On April 14, the Express hosted the first-year Memphis Showboats at the Memorial Coliseum. Under Head Coach John Hadl, they had lost their first four home games and were 2-5 coming into the contest. The team at least changed their appearance for the home fans, playing in white jerseys rather than the usual blue.

There were only 10,409 in attendance for the Saturday game at the huge stadium, and it did not get off to a promising start for the home team when Memphis WR Derrick Crawford returned the opening kickoff 71 yards. The Showboats, also 2-5 entering the contest, made the most of the good field position, driving to a touchdown on an eight-yard run by QB Walter Lewis.

Later in the first quarter, the Express got a big break when an underthrown pass by Young went through the hands of CB Leon Williams; WR JoJo Townsell made the catch and went all the way for an 81-yard touchdown that tied the game.

A minute into the second quarter, LA extended its lead when RB Kevin Nelson scored on a five-yard TD carry. Midway through the period, Alan Duncan kicked a 31-yard field goal for Memphis and the Express led by 14-10 at the half.

The Showboats were being outgained offensively, but nevertheless took the lead at 17-14 in the third quarter on a four-yard touchdown run by RB Cornelius Quarles, and it seemed as though Los Angeles might come up short once again.

With four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Memphis had the ball and was seeking to run time off the clock and possibly score again. However, a 30-yard carry by RB Alan Reid was wiped out by a holding penalty and the Showboats were forced to give up possession. The Express took over at their 34 with 1:58 remaining.

Young drove the team down field and appeared to have given LA the advantage on a 12-yard scoring run with just 59 seconds left on the clock. However, the end zone celebration was cut short by a penalty on the team’s oldest player, 30-year-old RT Jeff Hart, who was called for holding. Nelson followed up with a 10-yard run to the Memphis 12 and Tony Zendejas tied the game at 17-17 on a 27-yard field goal with a second remaining.

The Showboats won the toss for the overtime period, but four plays into OT, Express CB Wymon Henderson forced a fumble on an attempted option pass by Crawford and LB David Howard recovered for LA at the Memphis 36. A pass from Young to Townsell, who got an outstanding block from tackle Gary Zimmerman, covered 34 yards to the Memphis two. Young scored the game-winning touchdown at 2:51 into overtime, pushing between C Mike Ruether and G Mike Durrette to get into the end zone. The final score was 23-17 in favor of the Express.

The Express easily outgained Memphis (527 yards to 255) and had far more first downs (26 to 11), but untimely penalties and turnovers had kept the score close and nearly cost LA the game.

Steve Young had his best performance to date. The rookie from Brigham Young threw for 358 yards as he completed 22 of 34 passes that included one TD while none were picked off. JoJo Townsell, the second-year receiver out of UCLA, was the chief beneficiary as he caught 9 of those passes for a league-record 249 yards and the long touchdown. Kevin Nelson, also a UCLA product, rushed for 113 yards on 21 carries, including a touchdown.

For Memphis, Walter Lewis completed 14 of 20 passes for 147 yards with no TDs or interceptions. Alan Reid ran for 81 yards on 18 attempts and added 55 yards on 5 catches out of the backfield. Derrick Crawford caught 6 passes for 21 yards while WR Cormac Carney had 57 yards on his lone reception.

“The only thing I can say is we did the same things we've been doing, but we won tonight,” said a relieved Coach John Hadl afterward. “Again, the kids showed a lot of character. We put ourselves in some bad situations again, but we came back.”

Behind Steve Young’s solid play, the Express ended up with a 10-8 record, good enough to place first (thanks to tiebreakers) in the weak Pacific Division. They won an epic triple-overtime Quarterfinal playoff game over the Michigan Panthers, but lost in the Western Conference Championship to the Arizona Wranglers. Memphis was 7-11 for fourth place in the Southern Division.

Appearing in twelve games, Young completed a healthy 57.7 percent of his passes and threw for 2361 yards with 10 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. He also rushed for 515 yards on 79 carries for a 6.5-yard average and seven TDs (Walter Lewis led all USFL quarterbacks in rushing with 552 yards). JoJo Townsell ended up with 58 catches for 889 yards (15.3 avg.), seven of which were for touchdowns.