May 7, 2014

1983: Rae Rallies Express Past Breakers

The May 7, 1983 United States Football League game in Los Angeles featured a pair of teams that had lost their last two games and were struggling to remain in playoff contention.

The Los Angeles Express were coached by Hugh Campbell, who had been highly successful in the CFL. They sported a mediocre 4-5 record, but that was the same as the other three teams in the lackluster Pacific Division of the USFL. While the defense was tough, the offense had difficulty scoring points. Former NFL backup Mike Rae (pictured above) had been starting at quarterback, but was typically relieved by rookie Tom Ramsey out of UCLA, and now Ramsey was getting an opportunity to start.

The visiting Boston Breakers, coached by Dick Coury, had a better record coming into the game at 5-4, but in the Atlantic Division that put them three games behind the Philadelphia Stars. They were coming off two tough losses, including one the week before in which QB John Walton passed for 423 yards, the highest total in the new league’s brief history. A veteran of the Continental and World Football leagues, as well as the NFL, Walton had good targets in wide receivers Charlie Smith, formerly of the NFL Eagles, Nolan Franz, and Frank Lockett. They could also run the ball well, and while the passing defense was spotty, there was a good group of linebackers led by rookie Marcus Marek from Ohio State.

There were 16,307 fans on hand for the nationally-televised game late on a Saturday afternoon at the Memorial Coliseum. The Express got the first break when DB Alvin Burleson intercepted a third-down pass by John Walton and returned it to the Boston nine yard line. It led to an eight-yard touchdown pass from Tom Ramsey to WR Kris Haines. Vince Abbott missed the extra point attempt, but the home team held the early 6-0 lead.

The Breakers responded with a 44-yard Tim Mazzetti field goal after going 36 yards in nine plays and then got the ball back when the Express fumbled the ensuing kickoff return. The visitors made the most of the opportunity as FB Tony Davis swept around left end for a six-yard TD. Mazzetti added the extra point and Boston took a 10-6 lead into the second quarter.

LA put together a good drive of 75 yards in 13 plays that featured two Ramsey-to-Haines passes, but a holding penalty wiped out a carry to the one yard line and the Express had to settle for an Abbott field goal from 22 yards.

The Breakers came back with a series that featured effective running, a pass interference penalty on LA, and a flea-flicker pass to WR Charlie Smith that set up RB Richard Crump’s one-yard leap into the end zone for a touchdown. Mazzetti added the point after, and the score was 17-9 at the half.

Five minutes into the third quarter, Mike Rae relieved the injured Tom Ramsey at quarterback, who went out after being sacked by DE Daryl Wilkerson and suffered a bruised Achilles tendon. Abbott missed on a 42-yard field goal attempt shortly thereafter, but two plays later the Express got another huge break on defense when RB Anthony Steels fumbled and CB Wymon Henderson scooped up the loose ball and ran 33 yards for a touchdown. Abbott’s successful conversion again made it a one-point game at 17-16 heading into the final period.

The Breakers again moved effectively on their next series, but an offensive pass interference penalty called in the end zone on Smith forced a long field goal attempt of 48 yards by Mazzetti that was partially blocked and fell short.

Boston got a break, intercepting a Rae pass, but after driving to a first down at the five yard line, the Breakers could only come up with a 24-yard field goal by Mazzetti as the Express defense stiffened. Still, the lead was four points with less than eight minutes remaining to play.

It seemed as though it would be enough when LA was forced to punt on its next series and the Breakers responded with a long drive that finally stalled deep in Express territory. With 1:03 now on the clock, Mazzetti missed a 28-yard field goal attempt that would have given the visitors a seven-point lead.

The Express, who had such difficulty on offense for most of the game, proceeded to put together a six-play, 80-yard possession that was helped along by three completions to RB Tony Boddie for sizable gains. With 18 seconds remaining on the clock, Rae threw to Haines for a six-yard touchdown, and Los Angeles came away with a stunning 23-20 win.

Boston dominated in total yards (339 to 211), with only 22 of LA’s yards coming on the ground, in first downs (20 to 12), and time of possession (38:27 to 21:33). In addition, the Breakers sacked LA quarterbacks four times, to one by the Express. However, Boston turned the ball over four times, to two suffered by Los Angeles, and was penalized 12 times at a cost of 80 yards while the Express was flagged 7 times for 60 yards.

In his relief effort, Mike Rae completed 9 of 12 passes for 104 yards and one touchdown along with one interception. Prior to leaving due to injury, Tom Ramsey was 10 of 18 for 117 yards and a TD with none intercepted. Tony Boddie had 7 catches for 79 yards in addition to his team-leading 11 rushing yards on three carries and Kris Haines added 6 receptions for 86 yards that included the two touchdowns.

For the Breakers, John Walton was successful on 19 of 33 throws for 196 yards and was picked off three times. Anthony Steels ran for 92 yards on 17 attempts and caught three passes for 18 more yards. Nolan Franz topped the club with four catches for 64 yards.

“For the third straight week we played well enough to win, and didn’t get the job done,” said a disappointed Coach Coury of the Breakers. “It’s very frustrating, probably the most frustrating three-week period in my career.”

The Breakers went on to win their next four games, but ended up with an 11-7 record that was good enough to maintain second place in the Atlantic Division but not enough for the Wild Card playoff spot. The Express ultimately also came up short in the Pacific Division, also placing second at 8-10. Mike Rae and Tom Ramsey continued to split time at quarterback the rest of the way.