Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Grudge Match at Tampa Stadium, 5/26/85

Due to the brief history of the league, few rivalries were truly able to take hold in the USFL. Between expansion, relocation, and owners swapping franchises, the familiarity between teams that breeds contempt was hard to find.

There were two teams, however, who were exceptions to the rule: the Tampa Bay Bandits and the New Jersey Generals.

New Jersey running back Herschel Walker explained it as such: “There is no love lost between these two teams. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they’re from the South, and we’re from the North. Plus, the owners don’t like each other.”

In 1983, the Bandits won the first USFL game played at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, a 32-9 victory over the Generals. The Bandits were able to hold Walker to 39 yards on 19 carries. A year later Tampa Bay again defeated New Jersey, this time 40-14 in a laugher at Tampa Stadium.

Tampa Bay nearly pulled out a third win in their first of two meetings in 1985. Although quarterback John Reaves passed for 410 yards, the Bandits blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost to the Generals, 28-24, behind a rushing touchdown by Walker with 24 seconds left.

"Of all the games we have lost in three yeas," head coach Steve Spurrier said, "that hurt the most because we gave it away."

By the time of the rematch on May 26, 1985, the Bandits had won two lopsided contests and suffered one heartbreaking defeat to the Generals. If the competition felt heated on the field, by this point some serious competition had already taken place off the field between New Jersey owner Donald Trump and Tampa Bay owner John Bassett.

It is well known that Trump garnered the most headlines and attracted the most attention during his two seasons as owner of the Generals. He led the charge among USFL owners to move from the spring to the fall and compete head-to-head against the NFL.

Standing in direct opposition to him was Bassett, who believed that the USFL could only succeed as a spring alternative to the NFL. When USFL owners decided on April 29 to officially move to the fall, Bassett announced his intention to break away from the USFL and form his own spring league.

The two clearly had major philosophical differences on the future of the USFL, and while many fans and media members might have liked to view the game as a grudge match between Bassett and Trump, in actuality neither owner even planned on attending in person. While Trump watched the game from his weekend home in Connecticut, Bassett recuperated in his Toronto-area home from radiation treatments for his brain tumors.

On the field, the Bandits would have their hands plenty full containing Herschel Walker without also having the weight of league matters on their shoulders. Walker came into the game having rushed for over 100 yards in seven consecutive games. If the Bandits could control Walker -- who happened to be both New Jersey's leading rusher and receiver -- they could force quarterback Doug Flutie to beat them, and Flutie had yet to become anything more than a deft scrambler and mediocre passer in his rookie season.

Without the services of star nose guard Fred Nordgren, who had been lost for the season due to a broken leg, the task of stopping Walker may have been too much to expect.

Still, anyone hoping to see a good game did not leave Tampa Stadium disappointed. In fact, the estimated crowd of 35,000 may have witnessed one of the most exciting games in Bandit history.

A first half duel between Walker, and Tampa Bay's own rushing star Gary Anderson, set the tone for the game.

Walker started the scoring late in the first quarter with a 12-yard rushing touchdown to give New Jersey a 7-0 lead. Anderson answered back less than three minutes later on an 8-yard pass from John Reaves to nod the game 7-7.

Both Walker and Anderson added second quarter rushing touchdowns and the teams headed into the locker room tied 14-14.

Midway through the third quarter, Reaves found tight end Marvin Harvey on a 21-yard strike to give the Bandits a seven-point lead. Walker and the Generals would not go away, however, and the running back notched his third rushing touchdown of the day early in the fourth quarter to once again even up the contest.

With the score tied and time winding down, the Bandits marched 63 yards on 11 plays to set up a potential game-winning field goal by Zenon Andrusyshyn with 1:36 left in the game. The kicker known as "Z" to his teammates nailed a 29-yarder to give Tampa Bay a 24-21 lead. Still, the fireworks in this game were just getting started.

A hallmark of his collegiate and 21-year professional career, staging late comebacks was simply Doug Flutie's specialty. Despite only pedestrian statistics to that point (5 completions for 68 yards), Flutie would go on to produce the finest comeback of his rookie season.

Working with no timeouts and the Bandits running a prevent defense, Flutie completed five passes for 44 yards while driving the Generals 51 yards in 1:32 to set up a game-tying field goal. With just four seconds left in regulation, Roger Ruzek split the uprights from 40 yards out to send the game into overtime.

Tampa Bay punted after their first possession of overtimes, setting the stage for Flutie to cap the comeback. It didn't take long, as he connected on a much-disputed 49-yard strike to receiver Clarence Collins.

One referee ruled offensive pass interference on the play, which would have nullified the catch. He then changed his mind, calling defensive pass interference on corner Warren Hanna. Safety Marcus Quinn disputed that Collins even made a catch, saying that the ball hit the ground. A second referee ruled the pass a catch, but said that he did not see any interference on the play.

"It was a real mess," Quinn said after the game.

The "catch" and declined pass interference call set New Jersey up at the Tampa Bay 18-yard line, almost certainly guaranteeing a Ruzek field goal attempt to win the game.

With 11:07 remaining in overtime, the Generals lined up for the game-winning kick. Punter Rick Patridge, on for the hold, fumbled the snap. Instead of dropping on the ball -- which because the play came on second down would have given New Jersey another chance to kick -- Patridge scooped up the football and made a break for the end zone. Diving towards the pylon, Patridge became the unlikeliest of heroes as his nine-yard rushing touchdown delivered New Jersey to victory.

It was a stunning end to another late-game collapse against New Jersey. The defeat cost the Bandits a chance to clinch a berth in the playoffs. The defense, which had kept Tampa Bay in the game despite a three-touchdown, 166 yard rushing performance by Walker, simply could not stop Flutie when it mattered most.

Defensive end Mike Clark called the game a "tough loss."

"It's going to be kind of tough to get over this one for the whole team."

Indeed, if the next few games were any indication, it may have been a loss from which the franchise never truly recovered.

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