The U.S. Football League, hoping to alleviate confusion by using instant replays on close calls, instead found itself in a web of controversy as a coach admitted to trying to test the rule and a league official criticized the referee involved.

New Jersey Coach Walt Michaels said in a telephone interview yesterday that he asked for a replay on a holding call late in the first half in a game at Birmingham Sunday even though holding is not one of the three specific instant-replay challenges allowed by the USFL.

"I just thought I'd try it," said Michaels, whose team, quarterbacked by rookie Doug Flutie, lost, 38-28. "I know the rules . . . . Let's say I was just trying to play the game. Sometimes you do those things."

Referee Tom White accepted the rules challenge from Michaels, but promptly was told by the USFL's supervisor of officials, Cal Lepore, sitting in the press box, that the league doesn't allow challenges on holding calls. Lepore said yesterday that he wanted "to kick the referee in the pants."

"That's like an umpire behind the plate not knowing three strikes is an out," Lepore said. "It was just an error on the officials' part."

The official play-by-play, distributed in the press box, lists the call, made on an incompletion thrown by Birmingham quarterback Cliff Stoudt into the end zone, as pass interference.

Yesterday, Lepore said that was wrong, too. It was holding by New Jersey at the line, he said.

Either way, the USFL allows a team one rules challenge per half (at the expense of one timeout) in three specific cases:

* Whether there is a fumble or no fumble.

* Whether a pass is complete, incomplete or intercepted.

* Whether the ball has penetrated the goal line.

The instant-replay rule cannot be used to challenge a penalty call, the USFL says.

Michaels said he was just looking for an edge in a game that was about to get out of hand. The score was tied, 7-7, in the final minutes of the first half as Birmingham faced second and goal at the New Jersey four. When the penalty was called against his team, Michaels said he was thinking of the "possibility of keeping them from scoring."

The challenge disallowed, Birmingham's Joe Cribbs scored on the next play.

"I didn't make (the league) look foolish," Michaels said. "It was just a strategy of football. That's what we all do. Joe Gibbs would do it, too."

Gibbs, the Redskins' coach, could not be reached for comment.

Despite its debut, the future of the instant replay looks bright, Lepore said. Although the league did not use instant replays in either game televised on ESPN during the first week, Lepore said, he expects all league TV games (either on ABC or ESPN) to use the new rule by "the third week" of the season.

The delay has been caused by a lack of league officials available to sit in press boxes and review the replays, he said.

"Once we have enough review officials, any game on TV will feature the instant-replay rule."

Lepore added that he doesn't expect the league to add to the three replay situations this season, if at all.

"We've got to start somewhere," he said. Showboats Win, 20-3 United Press International

SAN ANTONIO, Feb. 25 -- Walter Lewis threw three touchdown passes and Leonard Williams rushed 136 yards to help the Memphis Showboats beat the San Antonio Gunslingers, 20-3, tonight.

Lewis threw a 25-yard pass to Greg Moser with 8:13 left in the first half to give the Showboats the points they needed. Moser faked a post pattern and cut back to the right flag, leaving cornerback Peter Raeford 10 yards behind him.