Two 8-4 teams that were in the running for playoff spots in the United States Football League’s third season met in Denver on May 19, 1985. The hosts, the Denver Gold, were in contention with Oakland and Houston in the Western Conference while the visiting New Jersey Generals were trying to keep pace with the Birmingham Stallions, Tampa Bay Bandits, and Memphis Showboats in the Eastern Conference.
The Gold were coached by Darrell “Mouse” Davis and utilized his run-and-shoot offense. After starting slowly, Bob Gagliano replaced nine-year veteran Vince Evans at quarterback and the club had won four of five games. WR Leonard Harris was the favored target on pass plays and RB Bill Johnson (pictured above) was productive carrying the ball.
As had been the case since the Generals came into being, RB Herschel Walker was the key to the offense, and he had a string of six straight hundred-yard rushing games on the line coming into Denver. Prize rookie QB Doug Flutie was suffering growing pains but brought mobility and a strong arm to the offense.
There were 29,139 fans in attendance at Mile High Stadium. The Generals struck quickly on their first play from scrimmage as Herschel Walker looped out of the backfield and sped past the coverage to pull in a pass by Doug Flutie for a 68-yard touchdown. Roger Ruzek added the extra point for the early 7-0 lead.
Following an exchange of punts, the Gold put together a quick three-play, 63-yard drive that featured a carry by Bill Johnson and a personal foul on the Generals that set up a 30-yard scoring pass from Bob Gagliano to Leonard Harris. Jim Asmus tied the game with the point after.
Neither team threatened again until late in the opening period when the Gold, deep in their own territory, turned the ball over when Johnson fumbled while fighting for extra yardage on a running play and New Jersey recovered at the 12. A sack of Flutie moved the Generals back but they regained the lead by three points on a Ruzek field goal from 35 yards.
The score remained unchanged during the second quarter as the defenses dominated and a rain shower passed through. With 1:23 remaining in the first half, DE Calvin Turner of the Gold recovered a fumble by FB Maurice Carthon at the New Jersey 15 and, shortly thereafter, Johnson took a pitchout and ran three unmolested yards for a TD. Asmus converted and Denver took a 14-10 lead into halftime.
The Generals started the third quarter by advancing methodically on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that featured ten carries for 31 yards by Walker and a fine pass from Flutie to WR Walter Broughton. Walker crashed over for a touchdown from five yards out, Ruzek added the extra point, and the visitors were back in front by 17-14.
The Gold responded by going to the air and Gagliano connected with WR Vincent White for a 48-yard gain to the New Jersey 15. A pass to Johnson out of the backfield picked up 12 yards and Johnson powered over for a three-yard TD. Asmus kicked the point after and Denver was in the lead by 21-17.
The Generals were driving as the game headed into the fourth quarter and Walker started the final period off by hurdling for a yard to convert a fourth down at the Denver 16. Flutie bootlegged to the six and, with Walker pounding into the line play after play, the visitors again faced a fourth-and-goal situation at the one that resulted in a Walker touchdown dive. Ruzek’s kick had New Jersey ahead in the back-and-forth contest by 24-21.
Denver again responded with a 69-yard scoring drive in which Gagliano completed passes to four different receivers and concluded with Johnson blasting into the end zone for the final yard and a TD. Asmus converted to put the Gold up by four points with 6:02 remaining to play.
The offenses had taken command in the second half with every possession ending in a touchdown and it appeared that the Generals might continue the trend on the next series but, after reaching the Denver 43, Flutie was sacked for a five-yard loss on second down by LB Craig Walls and, while a throw to Walker gained seven yards, a fourth-and-four pass was tipped and fell incomplete. A clutch completion to Johnson that converted a third down allowed Denver to run the clock down to 22 seconds remaining before the Generals were able to regain possession and the Gold won by a final score of 28-24.
Denver had the edge in total yards (310 to 301) and first downs (17 to 15) although the Generals led in time of possession (32:42 to 27:18). New Jersey also accounted for four sacks, to two by the Gold, but the Generals turned the ball over twice, one of which led to a Denver touchdown, to one by the home team.
Bob Gagliano completed 17 of 31 passes for 242 yards (167 of which came in the second half) and a touchdown while giving up no interceptions. Bill Johnson rushed for 98 yards on 23 carries that included three TDs and caught four passes for another 46 yards. Leonard Harris also had a team-leading four pass receptions, for 62 yards and a score.
For the Generals, Herschel Walker was productive despite Denver’s efforts to stack the line of scrimmage, gaining 142 yards on 36 rushing attempts with two touchdowns and pulling in three passes for 106 yards that included the one long TD. Doug Flutie was successful on just 5 of 15 throws for 141 yards and a touchdown while being intercepted once.
Denver went on to place second in the Western Conference with an 11-7 record and qualified for the postseason where the club took a thrashing in the Quarterfinal playoff round at the hands of the Memphis Showboats. As for the Generals, the loss dropped them to 8-5 and they also finished at 11-7 and second in the Eastern Conference. They lost a close Quarterfinal round game to the Baltimore Stars.
Bill Johnson rushed for a total of 1261 yards on 212 carries (5.9 avg.) with 15 touchdowns. His yardage ranked third in the league and he received All-USFL recognition from College & Pro Football Newsweekly. At the top of the rushing rankings was Herschel Walker, who gained a gargantuan 2411 yards on 438 attempts (5.5 avg.) and also led the circuit in scoring with 22 touchdowns for 132 points. He received consensus Player of the Year as well as All-USFL honors.