May 6, 2016

1984: Gamblers Rally but Panthers Win in Overtime

The Michigan Panthers hosted the Central Division-rival Houston Gamblers in a United States Football League game on May 6, 1984 with hopes of ending a four-game losing streak.

The Panthers were the defending USFL Champions under Head Coach Jim Stanley and had started the season fast with six straight wins before going into the swoon to stand at 6-4 and in a three-way battle for the division lead. QB Bobby Hebert (pictured at right) was hampered by a bad knee and the losses had begun when star WR Anthony Carter went down for the year with a broken arm. The offensive line, a strength coming into the season, was injury-ridden as well, but the defense remained one of the league’s better units.

Houston, a first-year club coached by Jack Pardee, was also at 6-4 and was coming off a tough overtime loss the previous week. Rookie QB Jim Kelly had been outstanding in operating the run-and-shoot passing offense, although he had taken many sacks. The Gamblers had lost starting RB Sam Harrell to injury and Todd Fowler, a lightly-regarded rookie out of Stephen F. Austin, was taking his place.

There were 29,068 fans in attendance at the Astrodome. The first quarter was scoreless until, following an interception by LB John Corker that gave the Panthers the ball at the Houston 39, the home team advanced in four plays to a touchdown on a 13-yard pass from Bobby Hebert to a wide-open RB Ken Lacy. Novo Bojovic added the extra point for the 7-0 lead.

With the Michigan defense keeping the Gamblers in check, the Panthers moved methodically in a 12-play, 61-yard series that extended into the second quarter and ended with another Hebert TD pass, this time to WR Walter Broughton from four yards out. Bojovic converted and Michigan was up by 14-0.

The next possession by the Panthers ended with Hebert being picked off by CB Mike Mitchell and the Gamblers capitalized when Kelly completed a third down pass to WR Ricky Sanders for a 37-yard touchdown. Toni Fritsch added the extra point to narrow the score to 14-7.

A short Michigan possession led to a punt and Bojovic, normally just the placekicker but forced to do double duty due to an injury to SS/P David Greenwood, boomed a 59-yard kick that pinned the Gamblers inside their 10 yard line. The teams traded punts for the remainder of the half and the score remained unchanged.

The Panthers had first possession in the third quarter and, with Hebert passing effectively and RB John Williams picking up 17 yards on a key carry, they drove 72 yards in nine plays to a TD on a seven-yard run by Williams. Bojovic converted to put Michigan ahead by 14 points at 21-7.

Todd Fowler ran effectively on Houston’s next series that ended with Kelly firing long to Sanders for a 44-yard touchdown. Fritsch’s point after narrowed Michigan’s lead to seven points once more. But it didn’t take long for the Panthers to respond as, on their third play of the next series, Williams took off down the right sideline for a 68-yard TD. Bojovic booted the extra point and the score was 28-14 in favor of the home team.

WR Clarence Verdin returned the ensuing kickoff 39 yards and the Gamblers again interspersed draw plays by Fowler to good effect. With the game now early in the fourth quarter, they scored on a five-yard bootleg by Kelly to complete the six-play, 61-yard drive. Fritsch successfully converted to make the score 28-21.

An onside kick by Houston was recovered by the Panthers and, while they were unable to capitalize, Bojovic’s punt was downed at the Gamblers’ seven yard line. Fowler immediately took off for a 20-yard run and caught a third-and-10 screen pass for a first down, but the visitors were ultimately forced to punt. However, they got the ball back at the Michigan 14 when Hebert fumbled while being sacked and FS Tommy Myers recovered. Fowler hit the line repeatedly, the last time for a touchdown from less than a yard out. Fritsch’s kick tied the score at 28-28 with 4:37 remaining in regulation. Neither team was able to get into scoring position the rest of the way and the contest headed into overtime.

The Gamblers won the toss for the overtime period but the squibbed kick hit a Houston player and was recovered by Michigan center Max Gill at the Houston 49. However, Hebert was sacked on first down and two passes fell incomplete to force a punt. The Gamblers drove into Michigan territory, converting two third downs along the way, and appeared set to win until Fritsch’s 30-yard field goal attempt was partially deflected by John Corker and missed to the left. Granted a reprieve, the Panthers drove methodically in 12 plays with Williams running well and Hebert hitting key passes. Bojovic kicked a 29-yard field goal and Michigan won by a final score of 31-28 with 59 seconds remaining in the extra period.   

Both teams rolled up significant yardage, with the Panthers coming out ahead (420 to 405) and also holding the edge in first downs (24 to 21) and time of possession (40:54 to 33:07). Michigan gained 246 yards on the ground to 181 for the normally air-oriented Gamblers. The Panthers accumulated five sacks, to three for Houston and the Gamblers turned the ball over three times, to two by the home team.

Bobby Hebert completed 20 of 36 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown while giving up an interception. John Williams had a big day with 165 yards on 22 carries that included two TDs. WR Derek Holloway and Walter Broughton each caught five passes, for 61 and 46 yards, respectively, and Broughton scored a touchdown. On defense, DE Larry Bethea accounted for three of Michigan’s sacks.

For the Gamblers, Jim Kelly was successful on 23 of 36 throws for 249 yards and two TDs, along with two interceptions. Todd Fowler (pictured at left) rushed for 140 yards on 22 attempts with a touchdown, his best outing to date. Ricky Sanders had 9 pass receptions for 120 yards and two TDs and Richard Johnson also caught 9, for 67 yards.

The win put the Panthers alone in first place in the Central Division, but they lost their next three games and had to rally to finish second and grab a wild card playoff slot with a 10-8 record. They lost an epic First Round playoff game to the Los Angeles Express in the third overtime period. Houston, having now lost two straight games in overtime, reeled off seven consecutive wins to close out the season in first place at 13-5. However, the Gamblers then fell to Arizona in a close First Round contest.

Both John Williams and Todd Fowler remained productive on the ground. Williams rushed for 984 yards on 194 carries for a 5.0 average and scored eight touchdowns. Fowler, barely a footnote during the first half of the season, ended up gaining 1003 yards on 170 attempts (5.9 avg.), including 208 in a single game, and compiled 11 TDs.