April 19, 2014

Stars Throttle Wranglers for USFL Title (1984)

The Philadelphia Stars were a team on a mission during the 1984 United States Football League season. Head Coach Jim Mora’s squad had gone 15-3 in the league’s inaugural ’83 campaign but lost a closely-fought title game to the Michigan Panthers by two points. The Stars were just as efficient and dominating during the ’84 regular season, going 16-2. QB Chuck Fusina led a conservative but potent offense centered around RB Kelvin Bryant and an outstanding line anchored by OT Irv Eatman and C Bart Oates. The “Doghouse Defense” was, if anything, even better than it had been the previous year and featured All-League honorees in DT Pete Kugler, LB Sam Mills, CB Garcia Lane, and FS Mike Lush. The club had beaten the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions to advance once again to the USFL Championship Game.

Their opponent on July 15, 1984 was the Arizona Wranglers, under Head Coach George Allen. The veteran-laden club that had (for the most part) played as the Chicago Blitz in ’83 was similar to the Stars in having a ball-control offense and rugged defense. 37-year-old QB Greg Landry no longer had a strong arm but still had plenty of savvy behind center and the running game boasted two thousand-yard rushers in Tim Spencer (1212) and Kevin Long (1010). WR Trumaine Johnson was a top receiver (90 catches, 1268 yds., 13 TDs). The defense ranked first overall and contained DE Karl Lorch, DT Kit Lathrop, and LB Ed Smith. However, Arizona’s road to the postseason had been more difficult – the Wranglers started off slowly but won their last four games to finish second in the Pacific Division at 10-8 and qualify as a Wild Card. They won two closely-fought games over the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express to make it to the title game.

There was a crowd of 52,662 on hand at Tampa Stadium for the second USFL Championship game. The Stars took control from the start, driving 66 yards in 10 plays in the opening series of the game capped by a four-yard touchdown carry by RB Bryan Thomas. Following a three-and-out possession by Arizona, Philadelphia again put together a long scoring drive that took nine plays to travel 54 yards. Fusina scored on a quarterback sneak from a yard out and, while David Trout missed the extra point attempt, Philadelphia was ahead by 13-0 after a quarter of play.

Fusina completed his first ten passes and the Stars’ offense moved methodically down the field, but in the second quarter turnovers kept the team from scoring again and nearly allowed the Wranglers to get back into the game. Backup TE Ken Dunek, in the lineup in place of injured starter Steve Folsom, fumbled early in the second quarter at the Arizona 43 yard line. The Wranglers recovered and capitalized when Frank Corral booted a 37-yard field goal.

Another Philadelphia drive into Arizona territory was stopped at the Wranglers’ 11 but Trout missed a 27-yard field goal attempt. Just before halftime, an 84-yard drive by the Stars came up empty when Kelvin Bryant, who was hampered by a toe injury, fumbled at the goal line – the play resulted in a touchback. The score remained 13-3 at the intermission although Philadelphia had rolled up 249 yards to just 49 for the Wranglers.

Arizona’s offense came alive in the first series of the third quarter. The Wranglers advanced 40 yards, but facing third-and-three at the Philadelphia 39, Greg Landry’s pass intended for Tim Spencer was broken up by LB Mike Johnson. While a furious Landry shouted at officials that Spencer had been interfered with, the protest was to no avail and Arizona was forced to punt.

Once again the Stars moved smoothly down the field. However, after reaching the Arizona 16, they came up empty once again when Fusina’s third-down pass was tipped by Kit Lathrop and intercepted by Ed Smith, who returned it 37 yards to the Philadelphia 46. It seemed once again that the Arizona offense would put points on the board, advancing to the 23, but the Stars defense held and Corral missed a field goal attempt from 40 yards.

The Wranglers suffered only one turnover, but it served to put the game out of reach. Landry fumbled while being sacked by DE Don Fielder at the Arizona 11 yard line and DT Buddy Moor recovered for the Stars. Seven plays later, Bryant scored from a yard out and Philadelphia took a commanding 20-3 lead with just under ten minutes left in the contest. David Trout capped the scoring with a 39-yard field goal as the Philadelphia defense stifled the Wranglers the rest of the way. The Stars became USFL Champions by a score of 23-3 that easily could have been much larger.

Philadelphia ran 59 running plays, a USFL postseason record, and dominated time of possession by 43:19 to 16:41. They also outgained Arizona by 414 yards to 119 and, while the Stars turned the ball over three times, the Wranglers were only able to take advantage with the lone field goal, while Arizona’s single turnover led to seven points for Philadelphia. Arizona, known for its outstanding pass rush during the regular season, was unable to put pressure on Fusina and did not sack him at all.

Chuck Fusina, the game’s MVP, completed 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards with no TDs and one interception. Kelvin Bryant led the running game with 115 yards on 29 carries that included a touchdown while Bryan Thomas contributed 69 yards on 11 attempts and one TD. WR Tom Donovan caught three passes for 43 yards.

For the Wranglers, Greg Landry was successful on just 6 of 20 throws for 54 yards. No player caught more than one pass, with WR Lenny Willis gaining 16 yards on Arizona’s longest pass completion of the game and Trumaine Johnson gaining 15 on his sole catch. Held to only 72 rushing yards as a team, Tim Spencer led the way with 33 yards on 8 carries.

“There’s no doubt we are the best team in the USFL,” said a triumphant Jim Mora afterward. “There was no denying this team.” Mora further added, “Our goal after losing to Michigan last year was not just to get to Tampa, but to win this game tonight.”

“We had opportunities to get back in the game after a couple of turnovers, but we didn’t take advantage of them,” said George Allen, coaching his last pro game at age 66. “We didn’t play as well as I thought we would, so Philadelphia deserves to win the championship.”

Allen saluted his players by saying, “I’m proud of them even though we lost. They played hard and came back from adversity all season long.”

In the ensuing offseason, the Stars moved to Baltimore (necessitated by the USFL’s plan to shift to a fall schedule for a 1986 season that never happened) and, while not as dominant during the regular season, rallied to win a second straight title in ’85. The Wranglers stayed in place but were merged with the Oklahoma Outlaws for 1985 and went 8-10 to finish fourth in the Western Conference.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on July 15, 2012.

 

Comments

  1. This article brings back some memories. I’d never heard of Bryan Thomas before that game, and I’ve heard nothing about him since. That was sort of a sloppy game, but the Stars still won by a good-sized margin. Kelvin Bryant was the workhorse, and the Stars defense shut down a potent Arizona offense. I’d forgotten that long-time NFL linebacker Sam Mills (New Orleans and Carolina) got his start in the USFL.

    Trumaine Johnson caught only one pass for 16 yards? Wow. As this article illustrates, the Stars defense really did the job. Tim Spencer–I forgot about him. He later spent some time with the Chargers. I remember he scored 2 touchowns in a Sunday night game against the Steelers. That was 1985, and the Chargers won, 44-34.

    How in the WORLD did Trumaine Johnson not become a top-flight receiver in the NFL? That dude was good. T-Johnson spent 1985 and ’86 with the Chargers, and I thought he would become Charlie Joiner’s replacement. He and Wes Chandler should have been a great tandem. But the Chargers were a team in decline. They really fell off the cliff in ’86, when they started off 1-8 and Don Coryell got fired. T-Johnson then spent two or three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, but he was gone before the Bills’ heyday of the ’90′s.

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