Only 3:11 remained in the first USFL Championship Game at Denver's Mile High Stadium last Sunday when Anthony Carter, the Michigan Panthers' wide receiver and No. 1 engine, loped out of the Michigan huddle and along the Philadelphia Stars' 48-yard line. When he reached a spot 10 yards from the sideline, he stopped, shifted all 162 of his pounds off his injured left foot and leisurely assumed a scissored stance. "I had hurt my ankle on a catch in the third quarter," he said later. "Bent the foot back."
At this point, the Panthers led the Stars by 17-14, which was not by as much as they should have, considering how Michigan had dominated most of the action. And Philadelphia was charging. The Stars had scored 11 fourth-quarter points, and Philly Free Safety Mike Lush had just stove in a Panther trap, planting a shot on Running Back Ken Lacy that put Lacy out of the game. Carter had already blown some opportunities to make Michigan's task easier, dropping three passes and bobbling two punts to ruin his chances for runbacks. He later admitted to having been unnerved by this "big" game, which wasn't so big that it couldn't be overshadowed in Denver by the arrival in training camp of a single NFL player, new Bronco Quarterback John Elway. "I was uptight," Carter said. "I wasn't like me." Yet, despite his glitches, he was having a good game. He had already caught eight Bobby Hebert passes for 131 yards. But he was still one very big play short of a great game. Ten seconds later, he was not.
"Bobby just told me to make sure I took the cornerback deep, so I made sure I did," said Carter of the 48-yard touchdown play that gave Michigan a 24-14 lead and, in effect, the USFL championship. The play was an audible, one anticipated so early that Hebert had mentioned it in the huddle. "We caught them in a blitz we expected," said Hebert. "I knew they'd try to disguise it. Lush came too late. And A.C. just...wow!" The play was split right A44 pass corner 2, a quick sideline throw to Carter. He gave Cornerback Antonio Gibson a darting inside feint and then broke out to receive Hebert's bullet.
Gibson closed on Carter's outside shoulder, protecting the sideline. Stars Strong Safety Scott Woerner read the play and came over to lend a hand. But Carter circled inside Gibson and sliced like a fish by Woerner, who was having a long day. As he reacted to Carter's cutback, Woerner felt his left knee hyperextend when his cleats held too firmly. He fell backward, rendered helpless by Carter's move. "I saw it then," said Carter. "I had gotten over the drops. I knew they were looking for me on the big play, and it had finally happened." While fellow Wide Receiver Derek Holloway, who had caught passes for Michigan's two earlier TDs, blocked Philadelphia Cornerback Jonathan Sutton, Carter's afterburner kicked in and he flew to the end zone, untouched. "You know, I think I should have kept that ball," said Carter, "but I threw it into the stands."
Some of the 50,906 people in the stands, in a sense, threw themselves back at Carter. As time was running out, the fans swarmed onto the field. They retreated while Philadelphia scored a meaningless touchdown and two-point conversion to make the final score 24-22, but then poured back. Mace was sprayed at the crowd that was trying to take down the goalposts, and nearly 100 of Denver's finest moved in to restore order. Seventeen people were arrested, a couple of them well-oiled Michigan backers. One woman suffered a two-inch gash on her forehead, and at least two people were handcuffed. Their names weren't Carter or Holloway, however. As far as Philly's secondary is concerned, those two are still at large.
Philadelphia had come into the game needing to control the ball and keep it away from the high-powered Michigan offense. Think of the Panthers as the vintage Pittsburgh Steelers—oh, all right, miniature Steelers, perhaps, but dominant in their world—led by Hebert, who would complete 20 of 39 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns and win the game's MVP award, Carter, Holloway, proficient tight ends and backs and the cleverest offensive linemen in the league. "We blitzed to take the trap away," said Lush. "We worried most about that. I played like a middle linebacker most of the time. Of course, you give away some things when you play that way."
What you give up is double coverage on the wide receivers, a luxury the Stars felt they could not afford. The Panther line was anchored by three former Steelers: Right Tackle Ray Pinney, and guards Thorn Dornbrook and Tyrone McGriff. "We do a lot of pulling because we do a good job at it," said Pinney, 29. "The coaches put some things in when Tyrone and Thorn and I came here around mid-season. I'd say this offense is very similar to what we used to run at Pittsburgh."
"Primarily, the trap is the basis of our running game," Michigan Coach Jim Stanley conceded, "but it also reduces pressure on our passer."
This suited Hebert. The only thing that Terry Bradshaw has on him is age, rep and size of target. Hebert burned Woerner with a 37-yard strike down the middle to Tight End Mike Cobb late in the first quarter, setting up a 33-yard Nino Bojovic field goal and a 3-0 lead. Woerner had faked a blitz and had his back to the play, racing to get into the coverage, when the ball was snapped.
Meanwhile, the Panthers' line was busying itself freeing Cleo Miller, the 30-year-old former Cleveland Brown, for unlikely gains. Miller, who was subbing for an injured John Williams (bruised toe), rushed for 80 yards in 12 carries, 6.7 per try.