Last Sunday's rematch between the Chicago Blitz and the Tampa Bay Bandits promised to be the best sort of game the USFL can offer. To wit:
1) Talent. It brought together the two most proficient offenses in the league. Chicago had scored 24.7 points per game, while Tampa was averaging 353.5 yards.
2) Meaning. It was one of those make-or-break games that an evangelical type like Blitz Coach George Allen plays to its emotional hilt. If the Blitz lost, they would fall two games behind the Bandits in the Central Division and be hard pressed to make the playoffs. "Anything motivational is good," said Allen.
3) Revenge. On April 2, in the only other meeting between the two teams, the Blitz had embarrassed the Bandits in Tampa, 42-3.
4) Glamour. It would be the national TV unveiling of Tampa Bay Running Back Gary Anderson, the former Arkansas star and the first NFL first-round draft choice to spurn the older league.
What all this meant was that the game had a billing impossible to live up to, and it didn't. In a rerun, Chicago muscled the Bandits aside 31-8 to reestablish itself as the USFL team with the greatest currency—in the clutch if not the till. Only 21,249 fans were witnesses at sun-washed Soldier Field.
Allen had been beside himself on the subject of money all week. He issued small stickers festooned with dollar signs to all members of the organization. He first had the idea when he was with the Washington Redskins, back in the last millennium. Last week's stickers looked orange. Allen called them gold. "Not all of our guys know what it means to be a pro, but this is it," Allen said. "Gary Anderson adds 35 percent to their offense. Not only do we have to control the ball, we have to score."
Ball control hadn't been a strong suit for the Blitz who, though 9-5 going into this game, lately had fallen on bad times offensively. Chicago's line had been subjected to increasing abuse as the season wore on. Allen himself had said ruefully that he could not get enough room to exploit his own excellent rookie runner, Tim Spencer. During practices, Chicago's scrub defensive linemen had been known to whack the offensive starters about and jeer them. In games the Blitz couldn't get. anything going besides passes to Wide Receiver Trumaine Johnson, and the opposition was wising up. Lately Johnson hasn't been able to go to dinner without two or three defenders following him. After a 21-15 loss two weeks ago to Boston, a top contender for the league's lone wild-card playoff spot, Allen threatened to dismiss backup Quarterback Tom Rozantz for having the audacity to smile on the plane ride home. At 30,000 feet, Allen said, "Anybody who isn't dedicated can leave now."
Meanwhile, Spencer longed for a day in the open. He even went so far as to wish aloud for one of his old Ohio State cronies, an offensive tackle named Bill Roberts. "I'm going to talk to our coaches about him. He's going to be a senior. He'd be the best we have," Spencer says. The Blitz's left guard spot had been a revolving door, and the Bandits came in with the No. 2 defense in the league against the run. Chicago Defensive End Junior Ah You even suggested that one of the Blitz's heftier front office people suit up and block. Spencer had taken to wearing Johnson's No. 2 in practice and putting more feeling into his pass routes.
This paid off, as Spencer caught scoring tosses of 43 and two yards from Quarterback Tim Keogel to go with a bruising 22-carry, 83-yard rushing day. Spencer also scored on a three-yard sweep, which gave the Blitz a 21-0 lead late in the second quarter, nearly depositing Tampa Bay Defensive Back Jeff George into Lake Michigan in the process. The Blitz's maligned line performed well enough for Spencer, Kevin Long and Mack Boatner to rush for 189 of Chicago's 207 yards on the ground. The Blitz held the ball twice as long as Tampa (39:06 to 20:54), and that's all the Chicago defense has ever asked.
Tampa Bay, now 10-5, had made great strides since the April 2 debacle, mainly the strides of Anderson, who had been the 20th player taken in the NFL draft, by the San Diego Chargers. Blitz Director of Pro Scouting Ed Buckley called him "another Gale Sayers" after Anderson rolled up 147 rushing yards in Tampa Bay's 45-17 demolition of Birmingham two weeks ago.
Anderson and the Bandits had no such field day against the Blitz defense, top-ranked in the USFL. Tampa Bay got only two first downs rushing all day. Tampa Bay Quarterback Jimmy Jordan, flattened by Defensive Tackle Kit Lathrop after throwing a pass, left the game for good with an injured right shoulder with 8:30 left in the first quarter. Anderson, who gained but eight yards on five carries, made a fumble that led to the Blitz's second score, on Spencer's long catch. Injury was added to insult early in the third quarter when Anderson suffered bruised ribs. But afterward he would hear nothing of moving his slight frame (6 feet, 180 pounds) to wide receiver, which is where the Chargers reportedly planned to play him.
"He is a little small," said Blitz Safety Luther Bradley, who continued to rank as one of the Bandits' leading receivers after intercepting two more passes to go with the pro record six he picked off in the clubs' first meeting. These were easy pickings, however, because after Jordan was injured. Bandit Coach Steve Spurrier was left with Mike Kelley, formerly of Georgia Tech, who showed a strong arm and vast inexperience in completing but nine of 33 passes for 155 yards.
Anderson thought things had gone a little too easily for the Blitz. "I heard they picked up one of our old defensive backs [Tim Groves, who's on the Blitz developmental squad]," Anderson said. "Maybe they learned something. All I know is, every time we ran a checkoff, they seemed to know where we were going."
Spencer, who finally had his day, seemed the most satisfied Chicagoan of all. "This game felt great," he said. "I'd rather it come against Tampa than against the [hapless] Washington Federals. You know what I mean?" Allen clapped his hands and led a cheer. He knew what Spencer meant.