May 26, 2015

1984: Late Scores Propel Express Past Wranglers

Two teams struggling to remain in contention in the Pacific Division of the United States Football League met in a Saturday contest on May 26, 1984. The visiting Arizona Wranglers and the hosts, the Los Angeles Express, each came into the contest with 6-7 records that put them one behind the division-leading Denver Gold.

Arizona was having trouble with consistency despite being a veteran-dominated club coached by George Allen. The Wranglers were coming off a big win against Denver the previous week, but had yet to win consecutive games. 16-year veteran QB Greg Landry led the ball control offense that also featured WR Trumaine Johnson and the running back combination of Tim Spencer and Kevin Long. DE John Lee was leading the USFL in sacks and the defense was stingy. But the team tended to hurt itself with penalties and turnovers.

The Express was a young club, coached by John Hadl. High-priced rookie QB Steve Young provided a huge lift once he joined the team in the sixth week with his passing and mobility.  WR JoJo Townsell led the receiving corps and there was a good group of young running backs, although injuries were giving rookie Kevin Mack an opportunity to start.

There was a typically sparse crowd of 11,702 fans in attendance for the Memorial Day weekend game at the Memorial Coliseum. Following a punt by the Express, the Wranglers drove 67 yards in nine plays on their first possession, concluding with a five-yard touchdown carry by Tim Spencer. Frank Corral added the extra point.

Los Angeles responded by advancing into Arizona territory with Steve Young passing effectively and running for a first down on a third-and-short play.  A 15-yard carry by JoJo Townsell got the ball to the five yard line and, from there, Young ran for a TD. Tony Zendejas tied the score at 7-7 with the successful conversion.

The Express nearly scored on the ensuing kickoff when it was mishandled, but the ball went out of bounds for a touchback. The game remained tied as the contest headed into the second quarter. A promising LA possession ended with CB Carl Allen intercepting a Young throw at the Arizona 12. Following an exchange of punts, the Wranglers moved into LA territory thanks to a Greg Landry pass to Kevin Long for 27 yards in a third-and-three situation. Completions to Trumaine Johnson and WR Lenny Willis got the ball to the 15 but a sack by DE Fletcher Jenkins backed the visitors up and they settled for a 34-yard Corral field goal with 20 seconds remaining in the first half. Arizona took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

The teams exchanged punts to start the third quarter before the Wranglers, taking advantage of good field position, drove 55 yards in ten plays with Spencer bulling three yards for a touchdown. Corral’s extra point made it a ten-point advantage for Arizona. The Express came back on a series highlighted by Young throws to RB Tony Boddie for 32 yards and 20 yards to Townsell and completed by Mack running for a nine-yard TD on a third down draw play. It was the rookie’s first pro touchdown and, with Zendejas converting, the score was 17-14 heading into the final period.

The teams traded punts and a time-consuming drive by the Wranglers had them in Los Angeles territory, but Spencer fumbled the ball away at the 24. Young immediately fired to TE Darren Long for 36 yards and the Express tied the score with a 43-yard field goal by Zendejas.

Arizona had the ball back with two minutes remaining in regulation and, facing third-and-13, took advantage of back-to-back penalties to maintain possession and get to near midfield. However, in the key play of the game, a Landry pass was intercepted by DB Troy West, who sped down the sideline for 58 yards to the three yard line. RB Kevin Nelson, entering the game late due to a broken rib, took a pitchout and gained the last three yards for the touchdown. Zendejas booted the point after and the Express came away with a 24-17 win.

The Wranglers had the edge in total yards (355 to 282) and first downs (25 to 15). But the two late turnovers proved to be their undoing, to one suffered by the Express, and Arizona was also hurt by nine penalties to four called on LA. The Express accumulated four sacks, to two by the Wranglers.

Steve Young did not have an impressive completion percentage, hitting on 11 of 23 passes, but they were good for 184 yards with one interception. The nimble Young also ran the ball four times for 23 yards (and avoided several near-sacks) and scored one touchdown. Kevin Mack led the LA runners with 44 yards on 14 carries. JoJo Townsell had three catches for 38 yards and Darren Long gained 55 yards on his two receptions.

For the Wranglers, Greg Landry was successful on 19 of 37 throws for 232 yards and gave up the one big interception. Trumaine Johnson caught 12 of those passes for 145 yards and Tim Spencer rushed for 81 yards on 15 attempts, scoring two TDs although also making a costly fumble.

The win put the Express alone in second place and had Arizona in jeopardy of both not making the playoffs and becoming the first George Allen-coached team to finish with a losing record. LA won its next two games while the Wranglers finally caught fire and won three straight, leading to a final-week rematch that Arizona won. Both teams ended up at 10-8, with tiebreakers giving the Express the division title and the Wranglers second place and a Wild Card playoff slot (Denver collapsed, meanwhile, falling to third place at 9-9). The Express won in dramatic fashion over the Michigan Panthers in the first postseason round, prevailing in the third overtime period. Arizona edged the Houston Gamblers, and that set up a third meeting between Los Angeles and the Wranglers for the Western Conference Championship. Arizona won to advance to the USFL Championship game, falling to the Philadelphia Stars.