Before the kick, before Novo Bojovic would line up with 56 seconds to play and convert an 18-yard field goal to save the Michigan Panthers from an upset and give them, instead, a 27-25 victory over the Federals, Washington Coach Ray Jauch could savor his team's best game of the year.
The Federals have been losers, it is true. Their only wins of this initial U.S. Football League season came against the Arizona Wranglers and an early, shoddy version of the present Michigan team. But even while the Federals now have a dismal 2-14 record, their performance before 26,418 Silverdome customers against a team that is now 10-6 and tied with Tampa Bay for the wild-card playoff spot earned a coach's admiration.
"Thinking about the game this week, I thought it might be close. But I also thought they might do a number on us. They have that capability," Jauch said. "It's a credit to us that we played them down to the end. You've got to admire this team. We're going to win some games. Doggone, we're going to win some and then watch out."
The Federals play Philadelphia and Los Angeles in RFK Stadium to finish the season.
"We thought we could beat Michigan," said running back Craig James, who gained 89 yards. "We thought we could beat everybody all along. Eventually these close games are going to be ours."
The Federals knew they had played well. But when Bojovic's kick won the game for Michigan, there was disappointment on the Washington side as there has been since early March.
"I'm not satisfied with this at all," quarterback Kim McQuilken said. "As far as I'm concerned, we should have won. I'm pretty mad about not winning the game.
"Ifs are everything in this game and they don't mean a damn."
McQuilken continued to start in place of Mike Hohensee, who has an injured knee, and threw 27 times for 19 completions and 158 yards.
Michigan is by no means the same team that Washington defeated, 22-16, on March 27. Quarterback Bobby Hebert, who was 13 of 21 for 195 yards and a touchdown tonight, is a vastly improved thrower, and Ken Lacy, who ran for 81 yards, has joined Herschel Walker and Kelvin Bryant on the league's 1,000-yard rushing list.
While the Federals began the game against heavy odds and with poor field position, the Panthers sought a rout.
With the ball on the Washington 37, Hebert saw Anthony Carter racing between defenders Mike Guess and Jeff Brown. Hebert's pass was a little high and deep in the end zone, but Carter snatched it out of the air for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 12:30 yet to play in the opening quarter.
On their next drive, the Panthers moved efficiently once more. Hebert completed passes of 20 and 10 yards to Carter and the Panthers appeared headed for another touchdown and the beginning of a runaway. But with a first-and-goal setup, Michigan failed to score after aggressive defensive plays by Joe Harris and Brown. Bojovic's 19-yard field goal with 11:52 left in the second quarter extended the Panthers' lead to 10-0.
"As usual we had trouble at the start," McQuilken said.
But soon the Federals began to move. McQuilken, rarely varying from a controlled game plan, hit Mike Harris, James and Billy Taylor on quick passes. The Federals' play calling has been conservative, if not predictable, all season, but with third and one from the Michigan four, they decided to fool rather than bludgeon their opponent. McQuilken faked a handoff and threw a flare pass in the end zone for Taylor, who caught it unguarded. Sandro Vitiello missed the point after and with six minutes left in the half the score was 10-6.
One series later, Washington's Dana Moore was forced to punt near his goal line. Ronnie Padgett got a hand on the ball and it flew almost straight toward the inflated dome roof. Carter picked up the ball and ran it to the Federals' 14. After a pass interference call on Brown and a 10-yard pass from Hebert to Carter, Williams ran one yard for the touchdown, giving Michigan a 17-6 lead with 1:12 left in the half.
Vitiello's longest field goal as a professional, a 51-yarder, sailed through the uprights as the half ended, the scoreboard reading 17-9.
"I knew we couldn't just run off with this one," said Michigan Coach Jim Stanley. "I had to convince everybody I was right."
Indeed the Federals looked stronger as the second half began. Hebert hit Mike Cobb on a short pass, but as Cobb hit the ground, the ball popped into the air and into the hands of Doug Greene. The Washington defensive back ran 35 yards untouched for the score, narrowing the margin to 17-15 with 13:58 left as a two-point conversion try missed. The interception was Greene's eighth of the season; he trails only Luther Bradley of Chicago in that category.
Washington kicked onside and recovered, but Taylor fumbled three plays later to give the Panthers the ball on the Federals' 29. Lacy scored on a one-yard run with 10:28 remaining in the third period.
With the score 24-15, the Federals put together a 74-yard drive led by the running of James and Curtis Bledsoe. For the first time this season, the Federals consistently opened sizable holes in the defense, and James narrowed the gap once more with a one-yard touchdown run with 6:48 to play in the third quarter.
"We're punching away," said the Federals' 320-pound center Tony Loia. "That's about the size of it."
Vitiello's 45-yard field goal with 9:38 left in the game gave the Federals their 25-24 lead. For a time it appeared victory was possible.
Soon, though, after a 73-yard Michigan drive, the ball would come off Bojovic's foot and hopes would fade once more.