If today's USFL opener between the defending champion Baltimore Stars and the Jacksonville Bulls were a yaller dog, as they say here in the South, it would have been shot.
Jacksonville lost newly acquired quarterback Brian Sipe to a completely separated shoulder on his very first series, but the Bulls got five field goals from Brian Franco and a third-quarter touchdown pass from backup Robbie Mahfouz to fullback Marvin Lewis for a 22-14 victory over the Stars before 51,045 at the Gator Bowl.
That was the least of it. The game was a litany of disasters, but after Sipe's injury, most of them happened to Baltimore. Quarterback Chuck Fusina threw two straight third-quarter interceptions and left with a strained right thumb, the Stars had two touchdowns called back for penalties, they scored only six points in 59 minutes and they helped Jacksonville's only touchdown drive with another penalty. The Stars were penalized 12 times for 71 yards, and fullback David Riley sprained an ankle.
Only Tim Riordan's touchdown pass to Herb Harris salvaged an embarrassment. The only other good thing that happened also was bizarre, a last-minute onside kick that worked when it bounced off the shoulder pads of an unsuspecting Bull. But that, like most of the Stars' drives of the day, came to naught.
In short, it was a mess of a game.
"First of all, they beat us fair and square," Stars Coach Jim Mora said. "They outplayed us, outexecuted us and outcoached us. We weren't consistent on offense, we scored six points in 59 minutes and didn't get the ball in the end zone."
Mahfouz had one rough moment, when he accidentally threw a pass to himself on his first series after replacing Sipe, by losing his grip on the ball. But from there on he was fine, completing 17 of 24 passes. A veteran who played in five games in Jacksonville's 6-12 season last year, he will start while Sipe is out, which is expected to be six to 14 weeks.
"It took me a couple of series to get loose," Mahfouz said. "For the few wins we've had, this is the most satisfying."
Misfortune struck the Bulls on the second-to-last play of the first quarter, in the middle of what appeared to be a touchdown drive. On third and four at the Stars' 22, Sipe read a blitz and passed to halfback Larry Mason for seven yards. But he was blindsided by cornerback Bill Hardee and left holding his right shoulder. He's right-handed.
The good news was, it wasn't a broken collarbone as originally suspected. He had completed five of six passes for 51 yards on his only drive, taking the Bulls from their 26 to the Stars' 14 before the injury.
"We suffered a tragic loss of our quarterback," Coach Lindy Infante said. "I told our players at halftime everyone had to pick up the load. Everyone took some of the burden and put it on their shoulders."
The Stars, meanwhile, could muster only David Trout's two second-quarter field goals, of 30 and 27 yards. Franco's five for the day tied Trout's league record. Both were in the Stars' 1983 camp, and Trout was chosen as the starter.
Things unraveled completely for the Stars in the last five minutes of a disastrous third quarter.
Mahfouz ended a 69-yard drive with a two-yard scoring pass to reserve Lewis that floated over the heads of safety Scott Woerner and linebacker George Jamison. Jamison had helped the drive along with a personal foul.
Just two plays after the touchdown, Don Bessillieu intercepted at Baltimore's 39. Franco kicked his third field goal, a 51-yarder, three plays later. The fourth field goal came on the next series, off Chester Gee's interception and 21-yard return to the Baltimore 16, ending the quarter. Three plays later, Franco kicked a 27-yarder.
It wasn't over. Fusina, who had injured his right thumb on the first series of the half, went to the sidelines on the next possession. He did not return, finishing with eight completions in 14 passes for 122 yards, and was scheduled for precautionary X-rays.
Herb Harris returned the kickoff 48 yards and backup Riordan completed his first pass for 14 yards to Scott Fitzkee, but Riley fumbled on the next play. Bessilieu recovered and returned it 39 yards to the Baltimore 35, and Franco kicked his fifth, a 50-yarder at 8:40 of the fourth quarter, to make it 22-6.
From there things degenerated further. On the Stars' next possession, Riordan threw an apparent scoring pass to Harris, but it was called back for illegal procedure. Then Riordan scrambled, and finding no receiver, dumped it off to unsuspecting lineman Irv Eatman for a 10-yard penalty. Eatman spiked the ball in disgust.
The Stars finally collected themselves, but their touchdown didn't come until there was exactly one minute left. Riordan, who completed 13 of 21 passes for 117 yards, found Harris from the two-yard line to end a 48-yard drive that took only 1:38. He then completed the two-point attempt to Willie Collier.
Trout's onside kick hit a Bull in the back and Larry McCoy fell on it at the Baltimore 47. Riordan found Allen Harvin for three yards and Harris again for 16 to get to the 37 with 33 seconds left. But Riordan was sacked on the next play, and time ran out with his 16-yard completion to Harris.
Two second-quarter field goals each by Franco and Trout tied it, 6-6, at the end of a first half marked by long drives with few results. Franco had one of 42 yards, finishing the drive Sipe had started, and a 25-yarder. Trout kicked his second with 34 seconds remaining, a 27-yarder on what was the Stars' third stalled touchdown drive of the half.