July 3, 2011

1983: Panthers Defeat Wranglers to Wrap Up Division Title

Coming into the season finale on July 3, 1983 at the Pontiac Silverdome, the host Michigan Panthers were running as hot as the visiting Arizona Wranglers were cold. Coached by Jim Stanley, it had been a remarkable first year for the Panthers, who stumbled out of the gate at 1-4 before winning six straight games to pull into contention. They had won 10 of the previous 12 contests coming into the last game, with the United States Football League’s Central Division title on the line.

Meanwhile, Arizona was going in the opposite direction. Head Coach Doug Shively’s team got off to a 4-4 start, good enough to be in contention in the weak Pacific Division, but then lost nine straight games.

Michigan’s balanced offense was led by rookie QB Bobby Hebert and contained key performers in wide receivers Anthony Carter and Derek Holloway, TE Mike Cobb, and running backs Ken Lacy and John Williams. On defense, OLB John Corker was having an outstanding season, along with NT Dave Tipton, ILB Ray Bentley, CB Clarence Chapman, and S David Greenwood.

There was a crowd of 31,905 in attendance, Michigan’s second largest of the season. The fans didn’t have long to wait for the home team to take control of the game. Less than three minutes into the contest, Lacy took a pitchout from Hebert and, rolling to his right, tossed a 38-yard touchdown pass to Holloway. On Michigan’s next possession, Lacy capped a five-play, 57-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown run. It was 14-0 after the first quarter, and there was no turning back.

Novo Bojovic added a 42-yard field goal for the Panthers in the second quarter, and shortly before halftime they scored another touchdown when Hebert tossed a screen pass to Carter who turned it into a 68-yard scoring play. Bojovic added a 27-yard field goal in the third quarter and Williams topped off Michigan’s scoring in the final period with an 11-yard touchdown run (the extra point attempt failed, not that it mattered).

Arizona finally got on the board in the fourth quarter when QB Dan Manucci connected with WR Wally Henry for a 48-yard TD, but it only averted a shutout as the Panthers breezed to a 33-7 win.

Michigan’s domination was complete, as the Panthers gained 487 yards to Arizona’s 234 and accumulated 23 first downs to 16 by the Wranglers. Michigan’s defense sacked Manucci four times (three by Corker, pictured at left, to top off his league-leading total of 28) while the Wranglers didn’t record any.

Before being relieved by backup QB Whit Taylor, Bobby Hebert completed 11 of 15 passes for 141 yards with a TD and none intercepted. In addition to throwing for a score, Ken Lacy rushed for 92 yards on 13 carries that included a touchdown; John Williams added another 85 yards and a TD on 16 attempts. Anthony Carter caught four passes for 112 yards and a score and Mike Cobb also had four receptions, for 32 yards.

For the Wranglers, Dan Manucci was successful on 18 of 43 pass attempts for 226 yards with a TD and an interception. TE Mark Keel led the receivers with 5 catches for 72 yards. The feeble running attack was topped by RB Harold Blue, who gained 37 yards on 13 carries.

The Panthers, at 12-6, ended up with the same record as the Chicago Blitz but won the division title thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker (they won both of their games against the highly-touted Blitz). With a full head of steam heading into the playoffs, they easily defeated the Oakland Invaders, Pacific Division champs despite a 9-9 record, in the first round and went on to win the USFL’s first Championship game over the Philadelphia Stars.

Arizona finished at a dismal 4-14, at the bottom of the Pacific Division and tied with the Washington Federals for the league’s worst record. When the Wranglers took the field in the spring of 1984, they would essentially be the team that had played as the Chicago Blitz in ’83 – in an odd turn of events, what was left of the 1983 Arizona club (minus Coach Shively, among others) became, in turn, the Chicago Blitz, under new ownership - but with no greater success.

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