RB Herschel Walker had become one of the most notable players in the United States Football League from the moment he passed up his senior year at Georgia to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the new Spring league in 1983. Walker had been a Heisman Trophy contender from his freshman year, winning the award as a junior, and thus expectations were high – and despite his achievements, the criticism often was sharp as well. He started slowly in ’83 but went on to win the USFL’s first rushing title with 1812 yards. Playing with a sore shoulder, he had a lesser year in ’84, but in his third season he was rolling up yards at a pace that not only put him at the top of his league’s rushing standings but also in competition with the NFL record of 2105 yards that Eric Dickerson of the Rams had set just the previous Fall. That record had been set over the course of 16 games and, coming into New Jersey’s 16th game on June 10, Walker had a string of nine straight 100-yard rushing games and was just 138 yards behind.
New Jersey, coached by Walt Michaels, was without injured QB Doug Flutie, who had suffered a broken collar bone the previous week. With backup Ron Reeves starting in his place, Walker could be expected to carry more of the load, along with FB Maurice Carthon.
The opposing Jacksonville Bulls, under the direction of offensive-minded Head Coach Lindy Infante, were also without their starting quarterback as Brian Sipe had suffered a separated shoulder, although backup Ed Luther had NFL experience. RB Mike Rozier, Walker’s successor as Heisman Trophy winner in 1983, was the third-ranking rusher in the USFL (he would finish second) and the defense was benefiting from the play of rookie DE Keith Millard and second-year LB Vaughan Johnson.
The Generals, with a 10-5 record, needed a win to clinch a playoff spot while the Bulls, at 8-7, were struggling to remain in contention, although they had beaten New Jersey in their previous meeting in Jacksonville.
There were 36,465 fans on hand for the Monday night game at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. The Generals scored first when Roger Ruzek capped a long initial possession with a 27-yard field goal.
Following a short series by the Bulls, another long and methodical New Jersey drive ended when Reeves threw to TE Sam Bowers for a five-yard touchdown. Ruzek added the extra point that made it 10-0. It got worse for the Bulls when they fumbled away the ensuing kickoff and early in the second quarter, Walker ran four yards for another TD.
Thus far, the home team had dominated the game, but two turnovers by the Generals allowed the Bulls to get back into the contest. First, Jacksonville had to punt following the next series but it was New Jersey’s turn to muff the kick and the Bulls recovered at the Generals’ 43. The visitors drove to the 15 before the series stalled and Brian Franco kicked a 28-yard field goal.
The next New Jersey series ended when a third down pass by Reeves was intercepted by safety Van Jakes. Luther passed the Bulls down the field and Mike Rozier ran the last five yards for a TD. Franco successfully converted to make it a seven-point game. However, the Generals had time for one more possession in the half and drove to another score, with Maurice Carthon running in for a touchdown from 15 yards out. The tally was 24-10 at the half.
Midway through the third quarter, and on the first play following a Jacksonville punt, Walker ran up the middle and broke two tackles on the way to a 55-yard touchdown that put him ahead of Dickerson. It also gave the Generals a 31-10 lead.
Behind by three touchdowns, the Bulls fought back in the fourth quarter. A blocked punt late in the third period gave Jacksonville the ball in New Jersey territory, and early in the final period it paid off when Luther threw to TE Robert Young for a seven-yard touchdown. Franco successfully added the extra point.
The Generals appeared to have the game in hand when the Bulls failed to convert a fourth down with 6:32 remaining on the clock, but a fumble by Walker’s backup, RB Rod Pegues, gave the visitors the ball again at the New Jersey 45. The Bulls made the most of the opportunity, driving to another Luther-to-Young TD connection, this time covering nine yards. Franco again added the PAT and it was a seven-point contest.
The Generals were unable to handle the ensuing pooched kickoff and Jacksonville DB Rodney McMillan recovered the ball at the New Jersey three with 3:10 left on the clock, giving the Bulls a good shot at potentially tying the score. But in dramatic fashion, the Generals kept them out of the end zone on four straight plays to hold on for the 31-24 win.
New Jersey led in total yards (313 to 267) and first downs (18 to 17). Of that yardage total, the Generals generated 230 on the ground. However, they also hurt themselves with four turnovers, to two suffered by the Bulls.
Herschel Walker rushed for 162 yards on 28 carries that included two touchdowns, bringing his season total to 2129 yards. Maurice Carthon contributed another 49 yards on 9 attempts that included a score. Ron Reeves threw just 13 passes and completed 7 for 83 yards with a TD and an interception. Walker was one of three Generals that caught two passes apiece and Sam Bowers led the club with 37 yards on his pair.
For the Bulls, Ed Luther completed 24 of 44 throws for 209 yards and the two late touchdowns as well as giving up one interception. Mike Rozier ran for 51 yards on 16 carries and led the club with 8 catches, for 45 yards. WR Alton Alexis gained 58 yards on his four receptions.
“Records are very important, no doubt, but then again, a win is just as important,” said Herschel Walker. “If we had lost the game, I don’t think the record would have meant as much.”
The win clinched a postseason spot for New Jersey while the Bulls were eliminated from contention. The Generals finished at 11-7 and in second place in the Eastern Conference. They lost to the Baltimore Stars in the Quarterfinal playoff round. Jacksonville placed sixth in the conference with a 9-9 record.
Herschel Walker finished up with 2411 yards on 438 carries (5.5 avg.) and also led the USFL with 22 touchdowns (21 rushing). He received unanimous Player of the Year as well as All-league honors and, with the demise of the league, moved on to the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL.