March 20, 2013

1983: Gold Beat Blitz in Wintry Conditions

Coming into the inaugural season of the United States Football League, the Chicago Blitz were widely viewed as the team to beat. They had the league’s best-known head coach in George Allen and many players with plenty of pro football experience, most notably QB Greg Landry and LB Stan White, and had managed to sign two highly-regarded rookies in WR Trumaine Johnson and RB Tim Spencer. They easily overcame the Washington Federals in their opening contest but had been stunned the next week by a late comeback on the part of the Arizona Wranglers.

On March 20, 1983 the Blitz hosted the Denver Gold for their home debut in Chicago. The Gold had far fewer known quantities on the roster but were coached by Red Miller, who had guided the NFL Broncos to their first Super Bowl appearance and remained popular among the city’s football fans. They did have a veteran pro quarterback in Ken Johnson, who had spent the previous five seasons in the Canadian Football League. Denver was 0-2 coming into the game at Chicago.

The weather was not cooperative. There was an announced attendance of 29,178 at Soldier Field (likely closer to 22,600) in the snow and wind as temperatures were in the 20s with a wind chill that was far lower. The Blitz made the most of having a 20 mph wind at their back in the first quarter. The Gold had the first possession of the game and punted. The home team then went 51 yards in 11 plays, mostly runs by RB Kevin Long, who gained 29 yards on 6 carries, ending with John Roveto’s 27-yard field goal.

Once again Denver punted and this time it took the Blitz just four plays to go 48 yards and put more points on the board. On a third-and-16 play, Greg Landry threw to WR Lenny Willis for a 42-yard touchdown and, with the successful PAT, a 10-0 lead.

However, just before the opening period ended and following a 36-yard run by RB Harry Sydney, the Gold got on the board when Brian Speelman kicked a 39-yard field goal. A few minutes later, and now in the second quarter, Denver got a break when Chicago’s recently-signed punter, Frank Garcia, fumbled while fielding the snap and the visitors got the ball in good field position (both Garcia and Roveto were covering for the injured all-purpose kicker Frank Corral). The Gold capitalized when Sydney swept to his right for another long gain, this time a 30-yard touchdown carry.

The score remained 10-10 at the half and neither team was able to move the ball effectively on the icy field during the third quarter. A little over three minutes into the final period, the Blitz finally broke the deadlock when Roveto kicked a 38-yard field goal with the benefit of the wind to conclude a six-play, 38-yard series.

The teams traded punts, with the Blitz holding onto a 13-10 margin. The climactic drive by the Gold started at the Denver 30 and was aided on the second play when Ken Johnson rolled out and kept the ball for a 12-yard gain to near midfield. However, it seemed as though the visitors would come up short as they faced a third-and-22 situation from their own 48. Johnson overthrew WR Lonnell Phea but a pass interference call on CB Maurice Tyler gave the Gold a first down at the Chicago 37 with 3:06 left on the clock.

Four plays that included a lateral from Johnson to TE Bob Niziolek that, combined, picked up 16 yards and a pass to Niziolek for 13 more yards gave Denver a first-and-goal at the Chicago three. Sydney ran for two yards on first down, but an incomplete pass followed by a carry by RB Larry Canada that gained nothing set up a fourth down play. Going for the win rather than a potentially game-tying field goal attempt, Johnson rolled out to his left and ran for a touchdown, sliding into the end zone with 18 seconds left on the clock. The extra point attempt was missed but the Gold came away with a 16-13 win.

Chicago easily outgained the Gold (263 yards to 160), had more first downs (16 to 7), and dominated the time of possession (35:06 to 23:54). Denver turned the ball over three times to one by the Blitz. But Chicago simply wasn’t able to translate time with the ball into points on the board and, for the second straight week, failed to nail down a win in the final seconds.

Ken Johnson threw only six passes and completed three of them for 25 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, although he ran for the winning score. Harry Sydney, who had the two big carries in the first half, gained 79 yards on 9 rushing attempts that included a TD. He also caught one of the three completed passes, for three yards, but tossed an interception in one throwing attempt. TE Bob Niziolek had the longest catch of the day for the Gold, of 13 yards, and had another six yards on a lateral.

For the Blitz, Greg Landry completed 7 of 17 throws for 114 yards and a touchdown while also tossing his first interception of the young season. Tim Spencer ran for 82 yards on 20 carries and was closely followed by Kevin Long (pictured below), who had 80 yards on his 23 attempts. Trumaine Johnson caught 4 passes for 58 yards.

 “I feel like the doctor who did everything right only to have the patient die,” said a disappointed George Allen. “I guess you could say it was a tough loss.”

Holding on to late leads would become a chronic problem for the Blitz, although they finished with a healthy 12-6 record and secured a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. They lost to the Philadelphia Stars in the first round – appropriately enough, due to the failure to maintain a late lead. Denver struggled to a 7-11 record, placing third in the Pacific Division, and Coach Miller was dismissed along the way. But the Gold had the best fan support of any of the USFL teams that first year, averaging 41,736 fans per home game in comparison to Chicago’s disappointing 18,133.