March 31, 2012

1984: Outlaws Use Late Comeback to Force Tie, Beat Gamblers in OT

Two of the United States Football League’s six new teams for 1984 met on March 31 in a Week 6 contest at Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Outlaws and Houston Gamblers were both off to promising 3-2 starts and were jockeying for position in the USFL Central Division.

Coached by Woody Widenhofer, former defensive coordinator of the Steelers, the Outlaws didn’t run the ball especially well, but they did have former Buccaneer Doug Williams (pictured above) at quarterback. Their games had typically been low-scoring and they had yet to put more than 17 points on the board. A cause for concern was a 49-7 loss at Arizona the previous week.

Houston, under Head Coach Jack Pardee and offensive coordinator Darrel “Mouse” Davis, had no difficulty scoring with its run-and-shoot offense. Highly-touted rookie QB Jim Kelly was proving to be the master of it and there was a talented group of receivers. RB Sam Harrell even had a 200-yard rushing game in the early going. But the Gamblers were also coming off a tough defeat the week before, by a 52-34 margin to the defending-champion Michigan Panthers.

There were 17,266 in attendance on a Saturday at Skelly Stadium, and for most of the game it appeared that the home team would disappoint them. The Gamblers scored first as Kelly connected with slotback Richard Johnson for a 39-yard touchdown in the opening period. It was 14-0 ten minutes into the second quarter when Harrell ran for a one-yard TD. Meanwhile, the Outlaws were struggling - at one point during the first half, Doug Williams missed on 10 straight pass attempts. Only a 45-yard field goal by Efren Herrera with four seconds left before halftime kept Oklahoma from being shut out in the first thirty minutes of play.

Williams ran six yards for a touchdown to narrow the margin to 14-10, but less than two minutes later Harrell scored on another one-yard carry for Houston. Herrera booted a 37-yard field goal, but it seemed as though the Gamblers had put the game away when Kelly again passed to Johnson for a TD, this time on a play that covered 25 yards.

The 28-13 score held up through most of the fourth quarter. However, Oklahoma got a break when DB Lee Wilson intercepted a Kelly pass and the Outlaws capitalized as RB Sidney Thornton scored a touchdown on a one-yard plunge with 1:58 remaining (pictured below).

It was 28-20 and the home team had one more opportunity with 35 seconds left. Doug Williams engineered a 68-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 48-yard touchdown pass to rookie WR Alphonso Williams, who out-jumped two defenders in the end zone and held on as they attempted to wrestle the ball away with no time remaining in regulation. Williams then threw to RB Ted Sample at the goal line for the two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime.

Houston won the toss for the extra period and it appeared that the Gamblers would prevail as they drove to midfield. But Kelly’s pass intended for WR Greg Moser went through the receiver’s hands and was intercepted by Wilson, making his second key pickoff of the game.

On a flea-flicker play, Doug Williams went long for Alphonso Williams, who again made a spectacular catch in which he pulled the ball away from defenders at the one yard line for a 53-yard gain. On the next play, Herrera kicked the game-winning field goal at 3:19 into the overtime period and the Outlaws came away with a stunning 31-28 victory.

The Gamblers outgained Oklahoma (350 yards to 308) and had the edge in first downs (19 to 17). The Outlaws suffered one turnover while Houston gave the ball up three times. Both teams recorded five sacks apiece and the Gamblers were penalized 9 times for a loss of 92 yards to 7 flags thrown on Oklahoma at a loss of 65 yards.

While Doug Williams had the first-half dry spell, he made big completions when they counted most and ended up connecting on 16 of 35 passes for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Alphonso Williams was the receiving star with 4 catches for 115 yards and a TD. RB Andrew Lazarus led the team in rushing with 41 yards on 10 carries. Efren Herrera was successful on three of his four field goal attempts, missing from 51 yards on a kick that bounced off the crossbar.

For Houston, Jim Kelly was successful on 25 of 42 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, but also was picked off three times. Richard Johnson pulled in 10 of those throws for 162 yards and both scores. Sam Harrell rushed 8 times for 32 yards and two TDs.

While the thrilling come-from-behind win put Oklahoma a game in front of the Gamblers, the two teams moved in divergent directions over the remainder of the season. The Outlaws peaked at 6-2, keeping pace atop the division standings with Michigan, before the bottom fell out and they lost their remaining 10 games to end up at a disappointing 6-12. Houston completed the schedule with a 13-5 record to win the Central Division, although the Gamblers were upset in the first round of the playoffs.

Before he was lost to a knee injury late in the season (the crowning blow in the team’s total collapse), Doug Williams threw for 3084 yards with 15 TDs but 21 interceptions, with a low completion percentage (49.4) and average gain per attempt (5.8) for the offensively-challenged team. Alphonso Williams remained a bright spot, catching 50 passes for 1087 yards (21.7 avg.) and seven touchdowns. The lack of a running game remained a chronic problem for the offense – none of the backs accumulated as many as 300 yards.

Houston remained an offensive juggernaut. Jim Kelly had a momentous rookie year, leading the league in most major passing categories including yards (5219) and touchdowns (44). Richard Johnson led the USFL in pass receptions with 115, good for 1455 yards and 15 TDs.