May 1, 2011

1983: Walker Crosses 1000-Yard Threshold as Generals Defeat Gold

RB Herschel Walker, whose signing by the New Jersey Generals had been the most celebrated event in the lead-up to the inaugural United States Football League season, entered the pro football world with extremely high expectations, having contended for the Heisman Trophy since his freshman year at Georgia and finally winning it as a junior. A slow start stoked the critics, but after eight games of the 1983 spring season, Walker had 852 yards rushing, including a streak of four straight 100-yard games.

The Generals, despite Walker’s efforts, had been a disappointment as they faced the Denver Gold at Mile High Stadium on May 1. Their record was 2-6, putting them in third place in the Atlantic Division, well behind the leaders, the Philadelphia Stars and Boston Breakers. While New Jersey had an experienced head coach in Chuck Fairbanks, injuries decimated the offensive line and QB Bobby Scott, who had backed up Archie Manning for several years with the NFL Saints, led a largely ineffectual passing game.

The Gold, coached by former Broncos mentor Red Miller, had a 4-4 record coming into the game, but in the mediocre Pacific Division, that was good enough to be in a three-way tie for first.

There was a season-high crowd of 47,940 on hand, no doubt bolstered by the presence of Walker, the USFL’s leading gate attraction. The home team dominated early. After the Generals were forced to punt on their first possession, Denver then went 60 yards in 16 plays capped by RB Harry Sydney scoring on a one-yard run. Sydney was the workhorse during the drive, carrying the ball 11 times.

New Jersey tied the game with 5:26 remaining in the second quarter as FB Maurice Carthon blasted over for a touchdown from a yard out to finish off a 76-yard drive. Denver came right back, however, as punter Steve Gortz faked a punt and passed to RB Glenn Ford, who made a spectacular run for a 75-yard touchdown. The Gold then again resorted to trickery as they faked the extra point attempt as well, with the holder, backup QB Jeff Knapple, throwing into the end zone to RB Larry Canada (an ex-Bronco).

On the final play of the first half, and with no time remaining, Scott passed to WR Tom McConnaughey for a two-yard New Jersey touchdown. An attempted two-point conversion failed, however, and the score was 15-13 in favor of Denver at the intermission.

In the third quarter, a pass completion from Scott to TE Sam Bowers that covered 49 yards set up a one-yard plunge by Carthon, who then added two points on a pass from Scott to put the Generals in front by a score of 21-15. Again Denver drove into Generals territory, but Canada fumbled after losing eight yards, and DB Eric Johnson recovered for New Jersey and ran 43 yards for a touchdown, making it 27-15.

The Gold fought back to narrow the margin in the fourth quarter. In a crucial third-and-eight situation, the Generals were called for pass interference and two plays later, Canada ran around right end for an 11-yard touchdown.

The Generals were ahead by just 27-22 as they got the ball back. However, Walker broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and burst through the secondary on the way to an 80-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the game with 6:41 left to play.

Denver responded with a 65-yard scoring drive that ended with the quarterback, Johnson, plunging over for a touchdown, but it was too-little, too-late as New Jersey controlled the ball for the remaining four minutes of play. The Generals won by a final score of 34-29.

New Jersey outgained the Gold on the ground (209 yards to 117) and through the air (272 to 213) and had more first downs (25 to 20). There was only one turnover in the game (the fumble by Denver’s Canada) although the Generals were penalized 11 times, at a cost of 82 yards, and Denver was flagged eight times (87 yards).

Herschel Walker, thanks to his long touchdown run, gained 172 yards on 29 carries. Bobby Scott had a particularly good day as he completed 13 straight passes at one point and ended up being successful on 20 of 28 throws for 283 yards with a TD and no interceptions. Sam Bowers caught 7 passes for 138 yards.

For Denver, Ken Johnson went to the air 26 times with 13 completions for 138 yards and a touchdown. Harry Sydney led the club with 55 rushing yards on 14 attempts while Larry Canada contributed 31 yards on 8 carries that included a touchdown. Six receivers caught two passes apiece for the Gold, but Glenn Ford had the most receiving yards on his one 75-yard TD reception on the fake punt.

Walker’s performance made him the USFL’s first thousand-yard rusher, giving him 1023 yards thus far on the season (221 carries). He ended up leading the league with 1812 yards for the year. The Generals remained in third place with a 6-12 final tally.

Having lost the week prior to the game against the Generals, the Gold proceeded to lose a total of four straight contests, costing the popular Miller his job. Owner Ron Blanding sought to mollify the Denver faithful by hiring another ex-Broncos star, Craig Morton, as Miller’s successor. The Gold also finished as a third-place team with a record of 7-11.