July 9, 2011

1983: Stars Stage 4th Quarter Rally, Beat Blitz in Overtime

The inaugural season of the United States Football League having yielded four playoff teams, the first of the Semifinal playoff games was held on Saturday, July 9, 1983 at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium.

The Philadelphia Stars had won the Atlantic Division with a league-best 15-3 record. Head Coach Jim Mora’s team featured an efficient, ground-oriented offense that ranked second in the league in rushing and a tough, opportunistic defense. Their turnover ratio was a USFL-best +35 as they suffered the fewest turnovers (27) and had the most takeaways (62). QB Chuck Fusina was an efficient game manager and rookie RB Kelvin Bryant the league’s second-leading rusher (1442 yards) and MVP. Defensive stars included Sam Mills, an undersized inside linebacker (5’9”, 225 pounds) out of a small college (Montclair State) who rose to All-League status, DE Don Fielder, and safeties Scott Woerner and Mike Lush. Even the specialists, PK David Trout and punter Sean Landeta, were among the USFL’s best.

The visiting Chicago Blitz finished second in the Central Division (due to tiebreakers) at 12-6, which was a disappointing result for the team that was the most highly-touted coming into the season. Head Coach George Allen was easily the best-known and most experienced of the USFL coaches. As was typical of Allen’s NFL teams, the Blitz was loaded with veteran talent, from QB Greg Landry to RB Kevin Long, defensive ends Karl Lorch and Junior Ah You, DT Joe Ehrmann, and LB Stan White. There were also talented rookies in WR Trumaine Johnson and RB Tim Spencer. However, the offense was very conservative and the team sometimes had trouble holding leads – as when they blew a 14-point margin in the fourth quarter against the Stars a few weeks earlier.

Landry went down for the year with a broken leg in the 12th game and the Blitz obtained another, lesser veteran quarterback, Bobby Scott from the New Jersey Generals. With backup Tim Koegel also injured, Scott had taken over the starting role.

There was a small but enthusiastic crowd of 15,684 in attendance at Veterans Stadium. For the first three quarters, they had little cause for enthusiasm as the home team played uncharacteristically sloppy football and struggled with turnovers. The Blitz scored first after CB Virgil Livers intercepted a Fusina pass at the Chicago 19 yard line six minutes into the game. They drove 81 yards in 15 plays that ended in a one-yard touchdown carry by Long. The 7-0 lead held up through the first quarter.

On the first play of the second quarter safety Luther Bradley, the USFL’s interception leader who had suffered a shoulder separation and was only playing in nickel situations, picked off a Fusina pass deep in Philadelphia territory. It took just three plays for Chicago to go 19 yards and score on a three-yard touchdown with Scott running it in himself.

The Stars responded by going 54 yards in nine plays to finally get on the board, with Bryant running for a 10-yard TD to cut the Blitz lead to 14-7. Philadelphia then got a break on the ensuing kickoff when WR Lenny Willis fumbled the return, but Fusina promptly fumbled the ball back on the next play as LB Jim Fahnhorst recovered at the Philadelphia 41. Eight plays later, Scott threw to the rookie Johnson for a 12-yard touchdown and the Blitz were once again 14 points ahead.

With just under two minutes remaining in the half, the Stars took over and played more like the team that had dominated in the regular season. Bryant ran for 40 yards, Fusina passed for six and ran for 18, and Philadelphia got to the Chicago 12 yard line with 48 seconds still on the clock. Operating out of the shotgun formation, they used a trick play as Fusina handed off to RB Allen Harvin and then, in turn, caught Harvin’s option pass at the four and ran over DE John Lee for a TD that made the halftime score 21-14.

Early in the third quarter, Harvin fumbled and LB Ed Smith recovered for the Blitz, who went on to score on a 12-yard pass from Scott to RB Mack Boatner. Frank Corral kicked a 32-yard field goal to extend Chicago’s lead to 31-14 before the period was over.

On the second play of the fourth quarter, David Trout booted a 49-yard field goal to make it 31-17. However, a fourth Blitz interception set up a seven-yard touchdown pass down the middle from Scott to Tim Spencer, and now with a 38-17 lead, it appeared that Chicago had the game well in hand.

The Blitz had capitalized on Philadelphia turnovers in the first three quarters, intercepting four passes and recovering three fumbles. But the momentum was now about to shift decisively. On their next possession, the Stars took over at their own 20 and it took them just six plays to travel 80 yards. Fusina threw to WR Scott Fitzkee, who made a sensational catch for a 37-yard gain, and the two combined again for an 18-yard touchdown with 9:29 to go.

On Chicago’s next possession, the Blitz ran twice and then Scott, intending a pass for Johnson, was intercepted by CB Jonathan Sutton at the Philadelphia 32. Fusina completed passes for 31 yards and ran for 21 in a seven-play drive that culminated in his tossing a two-yard TD pass to FB Jeff Rodenberger. With the successful conversion, the Stars were now just a touchdown away with a tick under five minutes remaining in regulation.

The Blitz went three-and-out, all running plays by Long, and punted. With 2:46 left and the small but boisterous crowd rooting them on, the Stars took over on their 29. Fusina moved the team down the field, completing five of eight passes for 51 yards and again contributing with his feet, scrambling for 17 more. The tenth play of the possession was a short pass to WR Tom Donovan, who caught it at the five and broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. Trout’s extra point attempt was good and the score was tied at 38-38.

Chicago got the ball back with 50 seconds remaining, but an incomplete pass and two running plays ran out the clock and sent the game into overtime.

With the momentum all in their favor, the Stars won the toss for the OT period and never relinquished the ball, methodically driving 73 yards in 14 plays. Harvin’s ten-yard run gave Philadelphia first-and-goal at the Chicago two. Bryant bulled to the one and then, on the next play, dove into the end zone for the winning score (pictured at top). Having scored 27 unanswered points, the Stars came away as 44-38 winners and advanced to the USFL Championship game.

Philadelphia dominated the statistics, outgaining the Blitz (556 yards to 218) and compiling the most first downs by far (33 to 13). Only the seven turnovers, which led to six Chicago scores, allowed the Blitz to nearly put the game away.

Chuck Fusina (pictured at right) completed 22 of 33 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. While he was intercepted four times, he rose to the occasion during the fourth quarter comeback and at one time was successful on 10 straight throws. He also ran for 66 yards on 7 carries, placing him third on the team behind Kelvin Bryant (142 yards on 24 attempts with two TDs, including the game-winner) and Allen Harvin (87 yards on 20 carries) and had the one scoring reception. Scott Fitzkee caught 6 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown.

For Chicago, Bobby Scott went to the air just 14 times, completing 8 for 96 yards with two TDs and an interception. Kevin Long ran for 76 yards on 21 attempts that included one score. TE Paul Ricker led the receivers with 5 catches for 57 yards.

“We didn't forget the way the Blitz folded in that game here in May,” Coach Jim Mora said. “Even when we were down 21 points in the fourth quarter, we knew we still had a shot.”

“It would have been easy to get down on myself,” added Chuck Fusina. “But nobody on the team got down on me and we all just kept saying that we had come from behind against Chicago before and we could do it again.”

“This was one of the greatest games in the history of football,” commented the losing coach, George Allen. “It's the first time in my coaching career that we took the ball away seven times and lost.”

The Stars came up short in the USFL Championship game against the Michigan Panthers, losing by a close score of 24-22. The Blitz, meanwhile, shifted to Arizona for 1984 and exchanged places with the ’83 Arizona Wranglers, with mostly the same personnel and Allen still coaching.