June 1, 2011

1984: Panthers Rally Behind Backup QB to Beat Gunslingers in Overtime

The Michigan Panthers, defending champions of the United States Football League, looked likely to repeat when they started off at a 6-0 pace in 1984. However, losing star WR Anthony Carter to a season-ending injury sent Head Coach Jim Stanley’s team into a downward spiral. By the time they took on the expansion San Antonio Gunslingers on June 1, they were 7-7 and in danger of falling out of contention.

The Gunslingers, coached by Gil Steinke and one of six new teams in the USFL for ’84, came into the contest with a 5-9 record. The offense had a rookie starting at quarterback, Rick Neuheisel out of UCLA, and had difficulty scoring either through the air or on the ground. The defense, which came to be known as The Bounty Hunters, was better and kept the team competitive.

There were 16,384 fans in attendance at Alamo Stadium for the Friday night game. They witnessed a first half that was almost scoreless. The only points came very late in the opening period as San Antonio’s Nick Mike-Mayer booted a 26-yard field goal to give the Gunslingers a 3-0 lead, capping a 60-yard drive that ended at the Michigan three yard line.

The Panthers’ Novo Bojovic had a chance to tie the game midway threw the second quarter, but he missed a 22-yard field goal attempt, and that was the closest the defending champions came to scoring before halftime. It was the first time during the 1984 season, and the second time ever, that Michigan was shut out in the first half.

San Antonio extended its lead on the club’s first possession of the second half that culminated in Neuheisel passing to WR Jerry Gordon for a 22-yard touchdown. Michigan’s quarterback, Bobby Hebert, left the game due to injury after completing just two of his eight passes for 35 yards, and backup QB Whit Taylor (pictured at top) came into the game. With just under four minutes left in the third quarter, Bojovic was successful with a 28-yard field goal that narrowed San Antonio’s lead to 10-3.

Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Panthers tied the game when Taylor threw to TE Mike Cobb for a three-yard touchdown. However, San Antonio went back ahead at 17-10 with 6:28 remaining in regulation as RB George Works dove into the end zone for a TD on a fourth-and-one play.

The Panthers responded with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a four-yard scoring pass from Taylor to WR Anthony Allen with 51 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and with Bojovic’s successful PAT, the contest was again tied at 17-17.

The Gunslingers had a chance to win on the last play of the fourth quarter, but Mike-Mayer’s 58-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar and was no good. The game proceeded into overtime.

With a strong wind blowing, Michigan won the toss and elected to kick off to start the OT period. It didn’t take long for the gamble to pay off. CB Oliver Davis intercepted a Neuheisel pass and returned it for a 27-yard touchdown just 22 seconds into the extra period to win the game for the Panthers by a final score of 23-17.

The Gunslingers outgained Michigan (311 yards to 251) and had a slight edge in first downs (19 to 18), although they also turned the ball over three times, to the Panthers’ one, the last time fatally.

Coming off the bench in the second half, Whit Taylor completed 13 of 23 passes for 139 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Anthony Allen caught 7 passes for 98 yards and a TD. RB Ken Lacy led the running attack with 32 yards on 12 carries, while RB Albert Bentley was right behind at 31 yards on his 10 attempts.

For San Antonio, Rick Neuheisel was successful on 16 of 32 passes for 213 yards that included one TD but also two interceptions. TE Joey Hackett was the top receiver with 4 receptions for 89 yards. RB Mike Hagen rushed for 44 yards on 14 carries.

“We were in double rotation nickel coverage, and I had a short area of responsibility,” said Davis of the play that resulted in the decisive score. “I made a hell of a break for the ball and got to walk it in. My main thing was to make sure I had the ball. I think he (Neuheisel) never really saw me. We disguised the defense to make him think it was a man-to-man.”

“We were in the nickel defense with an extra back,” added Coach Stanley. “This is one of the real good victories for this team. We showed class in the game. I'm proud of this team more than any other.”

The Panthers lost the next week but went on to finish up with two wins in the last four games, just qualifying for the postseason as a wild card with a 10-8 record. They lost to the Los Angeles Express in an epic triple-overtime First Round playoff game. San Antonio ended up at 7-11 and in third place, behind the Panthers, in the Central Division.

The relief performance by Whit Taylor was a highlight of his two seasons with Michigan (ironically, he played for San Antonio in 1985). Overall, he completed 47 of 96 passes for 790 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.