With a playoff berth still in doubt, the Baltimore Stars' defense responded with one of its best performances of the U.S. Football League season yesterday. The Jacksonville Bulls were held to two field goals in the first 58 minutes and the final score at Byrd Stadium was 17-12, Stars.

There were only slightly more fans in attendance than no-shows. The turnstile tally was 9,633, with 9,000 sold tickets going unused.

Reserve quarterback Ed Luther's 11-yard scoring pass to Larry Mason with 1:53 left made the game close, but defensive back Garcia Lane broke up the Bulls' two-point conversion try at the goal line.

Kelvin Bryant rushed 104 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns to lead the Stars (8-6-1).

Baltimore knocked out Bulls quarterback Brian Sipe with a separated right (throwing) shoulder for the second time this season. Sipe completed 15 of 26 passes for 198 yards in his third start since returning from the injury, but was hurt on a sack by John Walker midway through the third quarter. Luther (eight of 11, 84 yards) replaced Sipe, who incurred the same injury in the first game at Jacksonville when he was hit by Stars strong safety Bill Hardee.

Turnovers and sacks were the biggest pluses for Baltimore in the return match. The Stars downed the two quarterbacks six times for 44 yards in losses. They intercepted two passes and forced four fumbles, recovering one.

"We knew entering the game that any mistake would be costly when the two teams are so evenly matched," Jacksonville Coach Lindy Infante said.

Cornerback Jonathan Sutton made the key pickoff with 10:15 left in the game. On the first play from scrimmage following David Trout's missed 43-yard field goal, Luther threw deep to Perry Kemp. The ball bounced off his pad into the hands of Sutton, who raced 60 yards before being wrestled down by Luther, running back Mike Rozier and guard J.T. Turner at the two-yard line.

Bryant's dive over scrimmage put the Stars well ahead, 17-6.

While Bryant enjoyed his third 100-yard-plus game of the season, the league's No. 2 rusher, Rozier, made 60 yards on 16 carries.

"The defense was outstanding," Baltimore Coach Jim Mora said. "They had to go in sometimes with their backs to the wall, but they did a good job."

The Stars climbed to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of Jacksonville (8-7) and a half-game behind Tampa Bay (9-6) with three to play. Birmingham (10-4) and New Jersey (10-5) are one-two. The top two in each conference make the playoffs, along with the four teams overall with the next-best records.

"It isn't over yet, but at this stage we control our own fate," said Mora. "If we continue to win, we'll be in."

The Baltimore defense initiated most of the action in the first half. On the first Jacksonville series, the Stars seemingly stopped the Bulls when Scott Woerner sacked Sipe on third down, but defensive end Walker was called for offside. From the Baltimore 46, Sipe threw incomplete, but Walker surfaced again, roughing the quarterback after the throw.

Buoyed by the penalties, Jacksonville moved to the five-yard line on four rushes by Rozier. Mike Johnson sacked Sipe on a third-down pass attempt, though, forcing the Bulls to settle for Brian Franco's 30-yard field goal.

The Stars countered 5:48 later after Chuck Fusina moved the team to the Jacksonville 24. Trout kicked a 41-yard field goal to tie the score.

On the next series, safety Mike Lush made his eighth interception of the season, on an errant throw by Sipe over the middle.

A turnover by Sipe cost Jacksonville again on its next possession. Sipe completed five passes to move the Bulls to the Stars 11, where he fumbled the snap from center. Johnson recovered.

Fusina (19 of 30 for 166 yards) then moved the offense 88 yards on 11 plays, Bryant sweeping left into the end zone for the final six yards.