March 19, 2012

1983: Besana and Ex-Raiders Lead Invaders to Win Over Panthers

On March 19, 1983 the Michigan Panthers of the United States Football League made their home debut against the Oakland Invaders. Both teams came into the contest at 1-1. Coached by Jim Stanley, the Panthers had scored just one touchdown in the first two contests (they won their opening game over the Birmingham Stallions by a 9-7 score thanks to three Novo Bojovic field goals). Rookie QB Bobby Hebert, a largely unknown quantity from out of Northwest Louisiana State, had won the starting job but was off to a slow start, as was the far-more-heralded rookie WR Anthony Carter from the Univ. of Michigan, who had been the team’s biggest preseason signing.

Oakland was coached by John Ralston, formerly of Stanford and the Denver Broncos, and had its own unheralded starting quarterback in Fred Besana, a 29-year-old who had last been behind center for the Twin Cities Cougars of the semi-pro California Football League. Backup to Steve Bartkowski and the ill-fated Joe Roth at California, he had failed to make the cut with the NFL Giants and Bills, but was making the most of his opportunity in the new USFL. He had already found a favorite target in WR Wyatt Henderson. The Invaders, who had skimped on talent coming out of college, also featured TE Raymond Chester and HB Arthur Whittington (pictured above), veteran ex-Raiders, on offense.

There were 28,952 in attendance at the Pontiac Silverdome for the Saturday night game. Hebert started poorly, completing only one of his first seven passes, and was relieved by backup Whit Taylor. Still, the Panthers led by 3-0 after one quarter of play thanks to a 44-yard field goal by Bojovic.

Oakland took the lead in the second quarter as Besana connected with Henderson on a fly pattern for a 45-yard touchdown. Bojovic kicked another 44-yard field goal but Kevin Shea was successful from 32 yards and the Invaders were up by 10-6 at the half.

Oakland scored two more touchdowns in the third quarter, with Besana tossing another TD pass to Henderson, this time of 22 yards, and Whittington running for a 14-yard score. The extra point was missed after the latter TD, but it hardly seemed to matter as the Invaders held a commanding 23-6 lead.

The Panthers were down but not out, however, and Hebert returned to the game to spark a furious rally. It began with a touchdown pass to WR Derek Holloway that covered 48 yards and, with the successful extra point, made it 23-13 heading into the fourth quarter.

Besana extended Oakland’s lead by finding the 13-year veteran Chester along the sideline for a 32-yard touchdown, and this time the PAT was successful. But Hebert brought Michigan back once more as he threw long to Carter for a 58-yard gain that set up another scoring pass to Holloway, this time covering 22 yards.

Nursing a ten-point lead, the Invaders drove to another score. Kevin Shea’s 24-yard field goal extended their margin to 33-20 with 4:25 to go. The Panthers came back one more time, as Hebert connected for a third time with Holloway, who made a leaping grab in the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown, but time finally ran out on Michigan. Oakland came away the winner by a score of 33-27.

The Invaders outgained the home team (460 to 375) and had more first downs (23 to 20) as well as a big lead in time of possession (38:06 to 21:54). Oakland rolled up 169 rushing yards to just 55 on 14 carries by the Panthers, who were playing catch-up during the second half. Besana was sacked seven times (four of them by LB John Corker, the eventual USFL leader in that category) while Oakland’s defense dumped Michigan quarterbacks on four occasions. However, the Invaders suffered no turnovers while the Panthers gave up the ball twice (both on fumbles).

Fred Besana completed 24 of 30 passes for 341 yards with three touchdowns and none intercepted. While Wyatt Henderson scored two of those TDs among his three catches for 93 yards, Raymond Chester was Oakland’s top receiver as he pulled in 7 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. Arthur Whittington also had a big day, rushing for 109 yards and a TD on 26 carries and adding 4 catches for 46 more yards.

For the Panthers, following the shaky start Bobby Hebert ended up completing 13 of 23 throws for 289 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. Derek Holloway caught three passes – all for touchdowns – and gained 108 yards. RB Ken Lacy was the team’s leading ground gainer with 23 yards on 8 attempts. Anthony Carter had a mixed performance, pulling in two passes for 85 yards that included the one long bomb that set up Holloway’s second TD. However, he also fumbled two punts, one of which led to an Oakland score.

The loss dropped the Panthers to 1-2 and they would fall to 1-4 before turning the season around. In the end, they finished first in the Central Division with a 12-6 record and narrowly won the USFL Championship over the Philadelphia Stars. In the first round of the playoffs they defeated the Invaders, who had a mediocre 9-9 record but were still able to top the weak Pacific Division.

Things got much better for Bobby Hebert and Anthony Carter. Hebert led the league in passing, yards per attempt (7.9), and TD passes (27). Carter caught 60 passes for 1181 yards (19.7 avg.) and 9 touchdowns.

Raymond Chester concluded his accomplished pro football career by catching 68 passes for 951 yards (14.0 avg.) and five TDs and garnering All-League honors. Arthur Whittington was dogged by injuries but nevertheless rushed for 1043 yards on 282 carries (3.7 avg.) and had 66 receptions for 584 more yards. Fred Besana led the USFL in passing yards with 3980 and Wyatt Henderson, who got off to the fast start on the scoring end of Besana’s passes, finished with 54 receptions for 801 yards and 9 TDs.