June 17, 2013

1983: Denver Explodes on Offense to Defeat Wranglers

In the inaugural United States Football League season, the Denver Gold were hardly known for explosive offense. They turned the ball over with great frequency and were at the bottom of the USFL in offensive production. Denver had also experienced the first head coaching change of any team in the new league when Red Miller, formerly of the NFL Broncos, gave way to Craig Morton, an ex-Broncos quarterback. But on June 17, 1983 the Gold exploded against the Arizona Wranglers to not only post their highest point total of the year but also the most yards of total offense by any USFL club in the first season.

To be sure, the Wranglers had their own problems. After getting off to a 4-4 start, Head Coach Doug Shively’s team had lost seven straight. Arizona also had difficulty putting points on the board. While rookie QB Alan Risher showed promise, the club simply couldn’t remain competitive - even in the weak Pacific Division, where the 6-9 Gold were still mathematically in the hunt for the division title.

The one thing the Gold could do better than any other USFL team was draw fans, and there were 42,621 on hand for the Friday night game at Mile High Stadium, which was also the last home game of the year. The Gold wasted no time, getting on the board less than four minutes into the first quarter by driving 91 yards in six plays that culminated in a 75-yard touchdown pass from QB Craig Penrose (pictured above) to WR John Dirden.

The Wranglers responded with a 76-yard drive into scoring territory, but on a fourth-and-two play TE Phil Denfield fumbled the pitchout from Alan Risher and CB David Dumars recovered at the Denver 17. It was Arizona’s only threat of the first half.

Meanwhile, Denver put together an 82-yard drive in less than two minutes as RB Vincent White had runs of 29, 25, and 11 yards and backup QB Fred Mortensen threw to TE Bob Niziolek for a 12-yard TD. On the extra point attempt, the Gold lined up for a kick but instead the snap went to RB Bo Matthews, who powered into the end zone for two points. The score remained 15-0 at the half.

The Gold took the second half kickoff and drove 80 yards with Penrose completing a five-yard scoring pass to TE Darryl Goosby. Denver, pulling out all of its tricks, added to the lead later in the third quarter with the benefit of a flea-flicker pass from Penrose to WR Richard Matheney that gained 26 yards. It set up a 33-yard Brian Speelman field goal to make the score 25-0.

The Wranglers finally got on the board in the fourth quarter when SS Aaron Mitchell intercepted a Penrose pass and returned it 66 yards to the Denver 11. QB Dan Manucci threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to TE Mark Keel but the try for two points was unsuccessful. The Gold came back to score one more TD, on a Penrose pass to WR Victor James that covered seven yards, and with the successful Speelman point after finished up with a 32-6 win.

Denver rolled up an impressive 509 yards, to just 167 for the Wranglers. The attack was well balanced as the Gold gained 256 yards on the ground and 253 through the air. They also accumulated 22 first downs to Arizona’s 9 and dominated time of possession (35:22 to 24:38). However, Denver was also penalized 15 times, to 9 flags thrown on the visitors. There were remarkably few turnovers, with each club suffering one apiece.

Craig Penrose, a former teammate of Morton’s with the Broncos who joined the club after he became head coach, completed 12 of 21 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Vincent White  (pictured below) had a big day as he rushed for 159 yards on 20 carries. Victor James caught four passes for 60 yards while Bob Niziolek gained 93 yards on three receptions. John Dirden’s 75-yard scoring catch was his only one of the game.

For the Wranglers, Alan Risher was successful on just 10 of 25 throws for 105 yards and replacement Dan Manucci went 5-for-14 and 52 yards with one TD. Mark Keel caught 4 passes for 57 yards and a TD to pace the club. The running game that produced just 25 yards overall on 18 attempts was led by RB Darryl Clark’s 10 yards on 6 carries.

The Gold returned to their losing ways, finished the season at 7-11 and third in the Pacific Division. Arizona did likewise, ending up at the bottom of the division with a 4-14 record. 

Vincent White, like Penrose a late addition to the team, had by far his most productive game against the Wranglers. For the year, he ended up rushing for 291 yards on 52 carries for an impressive 5.6-yard average gain. He would see far more action in 1984.

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