March 4, 2011

1984: Bulls Lose Heartbreaker to Generals Before 73,227 in Jacksonville

One of six new United States Football League teams for 1984, the Jacksonville Bulls started their season off in a big way with a 53-14 opening win over the Washington Federals before a home crowd of 49,392. Head Coach Lindy Infante, former offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Bengals, put together a team that drew heavily on players who had played collegiately with schools in Florida and Georgia, and QB Matt Robinson, a product of the Univ. of Georgia who played for the NFL Jets and Broncos, performed well in the opener. For their second game, on March 4, a USFL-record 73,227 fans packed the Gator Bowl to see the new club take on the New Jersey Generals.

The Generals had been a disappointment in the USFL’s first season, finishing at 6-12, but were revamped during the offseason, starting with a new owner, real estate magnate Donald Trump. Walt Michaels, late of the Jets, was the new head coach and several veteran players had been signed away from the NFL – most notably ex-Cleveland Browns QB Brian Sipe to bolster the offense and linebackers Willie Harper and Bobby Leopold, DE Marshall Harris, CB Kerry Justin, and FS Gary Barbaro to improve a defense that had ranked last in the league in ‘83. They won their opening game at Birmingham. However, Sipe had to sit out the game in Jacksonville with a knee injury – backup Gene Bradley started for the Generals.

The Bulls scored first on a one-yard run by FB Michael Whiting just over four minutes into the first quarter. New Jersey responded with a drive that appeared to have stalled and come up empty when Roger Ruzek missed a 30-yard field goal attempt. However, the Bulls were penalized for roughing the kicker, and taking advantage of the break, the Generals tied the score early in the second quarter on a one-yard touchdown carry by star RB Herschel Walker.

Jacksonville came back in the second quarter to retake the lead as Robinson connected on a nine-yard touchdown pass to TE Paul Bergmann, but the extra point was missed, making the score 13-7. Late in the period, Generals LB Bobby Leopold (pictured above) intercepted a Robinson pass and returned it 16 yards for a New Jersey TD. With the successful extra point, New Jersey took a 14-13 advantage into halftime.

The Generals extended their lead when Walker capped a 76-yard drive on New Jersey’s first possession of the second half with a one-yard touchdown run, making it 21-13. The Bulls chipped away, as Danny Miller kicked two field goals before the period was over to make it a two-point game.

In the fourth quarter, another interception by the Generals led to a score. LB Jim LeClair picked off Robinson at the Jacksonville 22, setting up a five-yard scoring run by Bradley four plays later. New Jersey now had a 28-19 lead with 3:26 left in the fourth quarter.

Following Bradley’s TD, the Bulls responded with an eight-play drive that resulted in a seven-yard scoring pass from Robinson to WR Gary Clark to make it once again a two-point contest with 1:45 still on the clock.

It appeared the Bulls might pull off a win for the big home crowd when they successfully recovered the ensuing onside kick at midfield and drove into field goal range. However, Miller’s attempt from 41 yards was unsuccessful as it curved over the right upright, and New Jersey escaped with a 28-26 win.

Of the missed field goal attempt, Miller said it “really looked like it might have been over the upright…The wind was swirling in there. Ordinarily the ball floats for me, and it went a little bit to the right.”

Jacksonville outgained the Generals (383 yards to 307) and had more first downs (22 to 13). However, they turned the ball over five times, to two suffered by the Generals. While Matt Robinson completed 28 of 51 passes for 329 yards and two TDs, he also threw three interceptions, in particular the two costly ones deep in his own territory that led to scores.

RB Larry Mason paced the Bulls with 69 yards on 14 carries. Paul Bergmann caught 6 passes for 86 yards and a TD, and Gary Clark also had 6 receptions, for 57 yards and a score. For Clark, the rookie out of James Madison, the touchdown was his first as a pro and, while he would end up scoring three in the USFL, he compiled 65 over the course of 11 years in the NFL, as well as catching 699 passes for 10,856 yards.

For New Jersey, Herschel Walker gained a relatively low 72 yards on 21 carries that included the two short touchdown runs. FB Maurice Carthon was right behind with 67 yards on 18 attempts. Phil Bradley completed 8 of 17 passes for 140 yards with an interception. WR Clarence Collins caught three passes for 34 yards and TE Sam Bowers gained 57 yards on two receptions. Bobby Leopold had a notable game on defense, not only scoring on the interception return, but forcing Mason to fumble the ball away near the New Jersey goal line to prevent a score.

Jacksonville maintained good fan support throughout the year (attendance averaged 46,736 per home game), but went a disappointing 6-12 to finish at the bottom of the Southern Division. The defense was weak, the running game poor, and there were many injuries. The veteran Robinson ended up splitting the quarterback job with second-year pro Robbie Mahfouz. However, Gary Clark had a good rookie season, catching 56 passes for 760 yards and two TDs.

New Jersey went on to a 14-4 record to finish second in the Atlantic Division and qualify for the postseason as a wild card. They lost in the first round to the division-rival Philadelphia Stars.