June 9, 2011

1985: Gold Beat Gamblers to Clinch Playoff Spot

The teams that met on June 9, 1985 at Denver’s Mile High Stadium were battling for postseason berths in the United States Football League’s third season. The host Gold had missed out in the USFL’s first two years and came into this contest at 10-5 while the visiting Houston Gamblers, who had joined the league in 1984, were 9-6. Both clubs were in the Western Conference of the restructured league.

The announced move from spring to fall for 1986 had a devastating impact on the Gold, despite the success on the field. After averaging a league-high 41,736 fans per home game in 1983 and 33,953 in ’84, Denver averaged just 14,446 in 1985 and, for the finale at Mile High Stadium with a playoff spot on the line, there was a paltry crowd of 12,553.

Former Gamblers’ offensive coordinator Darrel “Mouse” Davis (pictured above) was now the head coach in Denver, and had brought his exciting run-and-shoot offense with him. Houston, coached by Jack Pardee, also continued to utilize the quick-striking scheme. However, star QB Jim Kelly was injured and backup Todd Dillon started against the Gold.

The Gold opened the scoring in spectacular fashion in the first quarter as QB Bob Gagliano connected on a bomb to WR Leonard Harris that resulted in a 63-yard touchdown. Houston responded with two Toni Fritsch field goals, of 46 yards later in the first quarter and 31 yards less than five minutes into the second quarter, to cut Denver’s lead to 7-6.

The nationally-televised game was delayed in the second quarter for 19 minutes due to lightning and torrential rain. The stadium lights briefly went out and parts of the field were flooded with over an inch of rain while the officials sent the teams back to the locker room until the storm passed.

Play resumed, but Denver’s offense, while moving the ball effectively, squandered four second quarter scoring opportunities and one in the third period as well. Gagliano was intercepted in the end zone three times and PK Jim Asmus missed field goal attempts of 19 and 30 yards. The Gold clung to a one-point lead at halftime.

Asmus was finally successful on a 40-yard field goal attempt midway through the third quarter and also connected from 47 yards early in the final period, putting the Gold ahead by a 13-6 score. However, Houston came back with a five-play, 73-yard drive that culminated in RB Todd Fowler running for a six-yard touchdown with just over eight minutes remaining in regulation. Fritsch was successful on the extra point conversion, and the score was tied at 13-13.

The teams traded punts, and then the Gold, taking over at their own 27 yard line, drove to the Houston one. Along the way, Gagliano completed passes of 27 yards to WR Marc Lewis and 20 yards to WR Lonnie Turner. Asmus booted the game-winning kick from 18 yards with one second left on the clock, atoning for the two earlier misses, and Denver clinched a playoff spot by a score of 16-13.

Considering that both teams had explosive offenses, the game was remarkably low-scoring (the 13 points were the fewest ever scored by the Gamblers). Denver significantly outgained the Gamblers (462 yards to 291) and also led in first downs (20 to 16), but had difficulty putting points on the board. The Gold gained just 47 yards on 21 rushing attempts and the Gamblers sacked Bob Gagliano five times (to three by Denver).

Gagliano nevertheless piled up plenty of passing yards as he set a Denver club record with 445 while completing 24 of 45 throws, including the one long TD but also the three costly interceptions. Marc Lewis caught 9 passes for 130 yards while Leonard Harris (pictured below), with the long scoring reception, had 177 yards on his four catches. RB Bill Johnson led the ground game with 38 yards on 15 carries.

For Houston, QB Todd Dillon was successful on 21 of 36 passes for 233 yards with no touchdowns and one picked off. Wide receivers Ricky Sanders and Scott McGhee and RB Sam Harrell all caught four passes apiece, with Sanders gaining the most yards (56). Harrell and Todd Fowler had identical rushing statistics - 25 yards on six carries.

“I could hear Coach Davis swearing at me as I walked off the field after the first half,” Jim Asmus said afterward. “But then he told me to go out in the second half and kick it through the uprights. I was glad I was able to come back and score points when we need them. I owed it to the guys.”

“Yes, it's true we had a difficult time getting into the end zone,” added Mouse Davis, “and yes, it's true we had a tough time making those field goals. But we won and it gets us in the playoffs.”

In the other locker room, Houston’s Pardee could only shake his head and mutter, “Two run-and-shoot teams in a defensive battle.”

While the loss put Houston’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, in the end both clubs made it to the postseason. Denver was second in the conference at 11-7 but was crushed by the Memphis Showboats in the first round (48-7). The Gamblers, who came in third at 10-8, also lost in the Quarterfinal playoff round, but to the Birmingham Stallions by the much closer score of 22-20.

With fan support dwindling, Denver owner Doug Spedding was considering moving the franchise for the ’86 fall season, but the USFL folded before the shift ever happened. Meanwhile, the Gamblers (who also suffered at the gate as a result of the announced move to the fall) merged with the New Jersey Generals, and while it created what could have been a dominating club, the end of the league rendered such speculation moot.