June 15, 2012

1984: Big Plays Propel the Express Past the Invaders

The Los Angeles Express were atop the United States Football League’s Pacific Division with a 9-7 record coming into their June 15, 1984 contest against the Oakland Invaders. Head Coach John Hadl’s team had started off slowly but benefited from the arrival of heralded rookie QB Steve Young (pictured above). The mobile lefthander out of Brigham Young brought a jolt to an offense that averaged just 10.7 points per game in the first five outings. He was further helped by the offensive line play of G Gary Zimmerman and C Mike Ruether. While not well supported by the LA fans and with unstable ownership, the Express was playing well and had won four straight games coming into Week 17.

Oakland, however, had a seven-game winning streak on the line, which was all the more remarkable because the Invaders had started off the season with nine straight losses. Head Coach John Ralston was let go after three weeks and Chuck Hutchison lasted five before owner Tad Taube hired Charlie Sumner to take over. The offense scored just 82 points during those first nine losing games, but the emergence of RB Eric Jordan, combined with a defense that didn’t give up a lot of points, turned things around. Injury-plagued QB Fred Besana benefited from the improved running attack. The Invaders were 7-9 but just two games behind Los Angeles with two to play.

Attendance was typically sparse at 14,794 for the Friday night showdown at the Memorial Coliseum. Oakland started off impressively, going 71 yards in 16 plays in its opening possession. Besana completed five of six passes and the result was a 26-yard field goal by Kevin Shea, who was coming off a poor performance the previous week against Michigan in which he missed all three of his field goal attempts.

It was still 3-0 at the end of the opening period, but on the first play of the second quarter, Young tossed a short pass to RB Mel Gray, who ran 76 yards untouched down the left sideline for a touchdown that gave LA the lead.

The Invaders responded by going from their 23 to the LA 14 in six plays. However, a holding penalty followed by a sack of Besana by DT Lee Williams that cost an additional 12 yards forced them to settle for a field goal, with Shea connecting from 47 yards to make it a one-point game.

While Oakland was leading in time of possession, the Express again struck quickly on their next series. On the fourth play, Young kept the ball and dashed 47 yards up the middle for a TD that resulted in a 14-6 score. That remained the tally at the half.

Oakland scored in the third quarter thanks to a 15-yard, 70-play drive that ended with Jordan running in for a TD on a one-yard sweep. However, the Express retained the lead when the Invaders went for a two-point conversion and Besana’s pass was broken up by DB Darrell Pattillo.

LA failed in an opportunity to increase its margin on an ensuing series when RB Kevin Mack was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-one play. But the Express got the ball back and came through with yet another big play, this time when Young passed to WR Malcolm Moore for a 44-yard gain to the Oakland 32. A few plays later, Young was stopped three yards short of a first down at the Oakland 14 but LB Gary Plummer was penalized for unnecessary roughness. With the ball moved to the 7, Gray ran in for a touchdown on the next play and the score was 21-12 with 9:37 remaining in the game.

The Invaders were far from done and came back with a five-play, 74-yard drive that resulted in a 30-yard TD pass from Besana to TE Brian Williams. They were again just two points down, but the Express put together a drive that was extended twice by fourth down conversions on runs by Mack. With less than two minutes to play, Tony Zendejas kicked a 37-yard field goal for the Express that extended the lead to what would prove to be a vital five points.

Now down to 1:35 in the contest, Oakland regained possession and nearly pulled the game out. The Invaders, starting from their own ten yard line, reached the LA nine with the clock down to seven seconds, but two passes by Besana were batted down to preserve the 24-19 win for the Express.

Oakland outgained the Express (370 yards to 334), had more first downs (25 to 14), ran off 18 more plays, and dominated time of possession (33:18 to 26:42), but LA won with big plays in a game in which there were no turnovers.

Steve Young was highly efficient throwing the ball, completing 14 of 16 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown - he also ran the ball 8 times for 82 yards and the long TD. Mel Gray rushed for 44 yards on five carries and led the receivers with 82 yards on four catches, scoring a total of two TDs. Malcolm Moore also caught four passes, for 70 yards.

For Oakland, Fred Besana was successful on 23 of 35 throws for 256 yards and a touchdown. Eric Jordan (pictured at left) gained 88 yards on 13 carries and scored once. Brian Williams had 8 pass receptions for 91 yards and a TD.

Los Angeles clinched a playoff spot with the win and, with Young sitting out the finale, lost to Arizona but finished atop the Pacific Division with a 10-8 record. In their first playoff game, the Express defeated Michigan in an epic contest that lasted into the third overtime period, but they fell to the Wranglers in the Western Conference Championship game. For Oakland, the loss ended the improbable winning streak and, losing again in the last game, the Invaders ended up at 7-11 and at the bottom of the division.

Appearing in 12 games, Steve Young completed a healthy 57.7 percent of his passes for 2361 yards with 10 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. He also ran the ball 79 times for 515 yards (6.5 avg.) and seven TDs.

Eric Jordan, who was such a key performer during Oakland’s winning streak, ended up rushing for 744 yards on 135 carries (5.5 avg.) and scored six touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes for 140 yards.