Monday, March 9, 2009

Bandits v. Bulls on ESPN, 3/10/84

In their second season of existence in 1984, the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League got off to a running start. After barely missing the playoffs in 1983, the Bandits opened the next campaign with a pair of victories against the Houston Gamblers and Arizona Wranglers.

The Jacksonville Bulls -- owners of a 1-1 mark -- came to Tampa Stadium on March 10, 1984, for a Saturday night contest broadcast nationwide on ESPN. With a Country & Western Night theme featuring a Dolly Parton lookalike contest, the game billed as "The Battle for Florida" featured the two best offensive attacks in the league. The Bulls, behind the arm of former University of Georgia quarterback Matt Robinson, led the USFL's Eastern Conference in passing. The Bandits, led by former Robinson High School and University of Florida standout John Reaves, were second only to the Bulls in that department.

As an expansion team in 1984, the Bulls quickly became the talk of the league. Jacksonville shocked everyone in Week 1 against the Washington Federals, scoring a USFL-record 53 points in a rout. The following week against the New Jersey Generals, the Bulls broke a USFL attendance record at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville with a crowd of more than 73,000. If not for a controversial finish in which a Jacksonville field goal was ruled no good despite video evidence to the contrary, the Bulls could have easily carried a 2-0 mark into the showdown with Tampa Bay.

"I think there was a false sense that expansion teams were going to be a year behind us," said then-Tampa Bay head coach Steve Spurrier. "There's a competitive group of owners in this league and they realize that if their teams don't play well, people aren't going to come out to the games."

The Bulls were certainly playing well, and the Bandits had their work cut out for them against the first-year upstarts. In front of a team-record crowd of 51,274, Jacksonville put Tampa Bay in a hole early, capitalizing on two interceptions by Reaves in the game's first six minutes. Linebacker Fernando Jackson picked off an underthrown pass by Reaves at Tampa Bay's own 31 yard line. This play set up the the Bulls first score, a four-yard touchdown reception by Michael Whitting. Kicker Dan Miller missed the extra point wide right, resulting in a 6-0 lead for Jacksonville.

Andy Hendel's interception on Tampa Bay's ensuing possession set up the Bulls at the Bandits' 8-yard line. Running back Larry Mason ran the ball in from the five for the score, and following a failed two-point conversion, Jacksonville held a lead 12-0 lead over Tampa Bay.

The Bandits answered by making the most of their best offensive weapon, running back Gary Anderson. The former University of Arkansas star led the Bandits on the ground and through the air on a 16-play, 85-yard drive to answer the Bulls. Anderson capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run -- his fifth of the young season -- to cut the defecit to 12-7.

Jacksonville's lead slipped to three points when Alonzo Johnson blocked Rich Hendley's punt out of the end zone for the first registered safety in Bandits history. Following the free kick, the Bandits were on the move when Reaves threw his third interception of the half to thwart a promising drive.

The Bulls capitalized on the mistake with a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Quarterback Matt Robinson provided the points -- but was lost for the rest of the game to injury -- on his one-yard touchdown plunge that gave his team an 18-9 lead.

With just 54 seconds left in the first half, the Bandits drove the length of the field to set up a field goal attempt for kicker Zenon Andrusyshyn. His kick from 28 yards out was good and the Bandits, despite three turnovers, went into the locker room trailing by only six points, 18-12.

The Bandits tied the game with 6:15 left in the third quarter when Reaves tossed his first touchdown pass of the season, a 33-yard strike to wide receiver Eric Truvillion. Andrusyshyn shanked the extra point attempt, leaving the game tied at 18.

On Jacksonville's next possession, the Tampa Bay defense forced Robinson's replacement at quarterback, Robbie Mahfouz, into a costly interception deep in their own territory. Fullback Greg Boone capped the short Tampa Bay drive with a 9-yard TD run to give Tampa Bay their first lead of the game.

Leading 25-18 with a chance to pull away from the Bulls, Reaves threw his fourth interception of the game. Jacksonville's Willie McClendon then carried the ball five times on a six-play, 61-yard drive that concluded with his six-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to notch the score at 25.

Once a hero, McClendon became the goat for Jacksonville when he fumbled at the Tampa Bay 40 with 5:21 left. After exchanging punts in a field position battle, Tampa Bay capitalized with time winding down in the game. Reaves, whose four picks nearly cost Tampa Bay the game, led the Bandits down to the Jacksonville 13-yard-line with just six seconds remaining. Despite a poor snap from center, Willie Gillespie made a great hold and Andrusyshyn's 30-yard field goal was true, giving the Bandits a hard-fought and harrowing 28-25 triumph.

The win propelled the Bandits to a 3-0 mark, the same record it held after three weeks in 1983. The previous edition of the Bandits ended up finishing 11-7 and out of the playoffs. Still, players on the team believed there was plenty of improvement ahead for Tampa Bay.

"We can be a whole lot better," Reaves said.

Added Greg Boone, "I don't think anybody is better than us on offense, and I don't see anybody physically better than us."

Undefeated and atop the Southern Division, the Bandits certainly had reason to feel 1984 would make the disappointments of 1983 a distant memory.

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