June 30, 2010

1984: Express Defeat Panthers in 3rd Overtime Period

The United States Football League first round playoff matchup on June 30, 1984 at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles featured two teams that completed the regular season with 10-8 records. The host Express, champions of the Pacific Division, were up against the Michigan Panthers, the defending league champions who had finished second in the Central Division and qualified for the postseason as a wild card entry.

The Panthers, under Head Coach Jim Stanley, had looked bound to win the title again as they broke out to a 6-0 start. However, the loss of key players to injury - in particular WR Anthony Carter, SS David Greenwood, and G Thom Dornbrook - caused the club to sputter. Michigan proceeded to lose four consecutive games, and seven of eight, before winning three of the last four contests to make it into the playoffs. QB Bobby Hebert, who had played so well as a rookie in ’83 in leading the team to the title, was still effective but was forced to play through injuries and clearly missed the presence of Carter as his primary receiver after the sixth game.

Los Angeles had started slowly at 2-5 under Head Coach John Hadl and had difficulty putting points on the board. However, the insertion of rookie Steve Young (pictured above) as the starting quarterback began to pay off in the second half of the season, and the team went 8-3 the rest of the way to win the league’s weakest division.

The Express had experienced difficulty in drawing fans, and even though it was a playoff game there were just 7964 in attendance at the huge Coliseum. LA scored first, keeping the ball on the ground for seven of ten plays in an opening drive that concluded with a five-yard touchdown run by RB Kevin Nelson, the club’s leading rusher during the season.

That was it until midway through the second quarter when the Express extended the lead to 10-0 thanks to a 32-yard field goal by Tony Zendejas. Michigan got on the board late in the period on a three-yard TD run by RB Cleo Miller and then scored quickly again after intercepting a Young pass that was followed by a 22-yard touchdown throw from Hebert to RB Ken Lacy. The Panthers took a 14-10 lead into halftime.

Zendejas narrowed the margin to 14-13 late in the third quarter with a 34-yard field goal. However, Hebert threw a two-yard touchdown pass to TE Mike Cobb in the fourth quarter to stake the Panthers to an eight-point lead.

With 8:57 left in regulation, LA took possession at its 20 yard line. On first down, Young looked set to pass but took off on a seven-yard run. He didn’t slide at the end of the play, attempting to pick up more yardage, and was hit hard by Michigan LB Kyle Borland. Appearing dazed by the hit, the rookie quarterback ignored a request by Coach Hadl to leave the game and trotted back to the huddle – an act that seemed to inspire the offense.

RB Mel Gray carried for six yards and a first down on the next play, and a screen pass to WR JoJo Townsell picked up nine more. The drive stalled on the Panthers 47, but on a fourth-and-one play Young ran for four yards before taking yet another hard hit, this time from FS Ron Osborne. He followed up with a 22-yard pass to TE Darren Long and then, on a third down play at the Michigan 12, took off on another run that ended just short of the goal line. From there, Nelson scored with just 52 seconds remaining. The Express went for the two-point conversion and Young ran it in to tie the contest at 21-21.

The game went into overtime, and for two periods neither team could break the deadlock. Michigan’s normally reliable placekicker, Novo Bojovic, who had been successful on 22 of 29 field goal attempts during the season, missed twice during OT – the first a near-miss from 37 yards out while the second, from 36 yards, was badly shanked. Hebert had been knocked out of the game after being blind-sided while sacked by DT Eddie Weaver and was replaced by backup Whit Taylor.

The Express offense couldn’t move during the first 30 minutes of overtime, but finally in the third OT period Young hit Townsell on two slant passes that totaled 47 yards and Gray ended the contest with a 24-yard burst for a touchdown. It was a painful end to the marathon game for Gray, who was hit hard as he reached the goal line and suffered a broken arm that had him lying on the field in pain rather than celebrating.

At 93 minutes and 33 seconds (the winning score came at 3:33 into the third overtime period), it had been the longest pro football game ever played, breaking the 82:40 mark of the 1971 NFL Divisional playoff between the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. As John Hadl summed up afterward, “I’ve never been through anything like that in my life.”

Steve Young completed 23 of 44 passes for 295 yards with two interceptions, ran for 44 yards on 7 carries, and received praise for his gritty performance, particularly in the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. Mel Gray (pictured at right), who would go on to an outstanding NFL career as a kick returner, rushed for 124 yards on 31 carries including the game-winning TD. JoJo Townsell led the LA receivers with five catches for 96 yards; TE David Hersey also caught five passes, for 68 yards.

In defeat, Bobby Hebert completed 13 of 27 pass attempts for 201 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. RB John Williams gained 113 yards on 23 carries while Ken Lacy added 60 yards on five rushes. Lacy was co-leader in pass receiving with four catches for 57 yards and WR Derek Holloway had four receptions for a team-leading 67 yards.

Both teams topped 200 rushing yards, with Michigan outgaining the Express 236 to 217. The Express had the net passing yardage advantage at 285 to 245 and also led in time of possession, 51:59 to 41:34. The Panthers suffered four turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble) to LA’s three (two interceptions, one fumble). But the kicking game proved crucial, as Tony Zendejas was successful in both of his field goal attempts for the Express while Novo Bojovic missed all three of his attempted three-pointers for Michigan, including the two failures in overtime (Bojovic is pictured at bottom after one of the missed attempts).

The Express lost the Western Conference title game to the Arizona Wranglers the following week, 35-23. The marathon game proved to be the finale for the Michigan Panthers, although it wasn’t known at the time – the franchise was merged with the Oakland Invaders in 1985 and abandoned the Michigan home base and identity altogether.