The later it gets, the more timely the Baltimore Stars seem to become, and nothing could have been timelier than their 38-10 rout of the Tampa Bay Bandits yesterday.
In the Stars' final game before they enter the U.S. Football League playoffs, an offense that has sputtered most of the year let loose for four touchdowns. A perennially brutal defense that has kept them in postseason contention forced six Tampa Bay turnovers at College Park's Byrd Stadium.
The defending league champion Stars got two touchdowns from Kelvin Bryant, on a 66-yard run and 42-yard pass from Chuck Fusina, and two more from fullback Allen Harvin, on a four-yard run and a five-yard pass from Fusina. Four straight turnovers by Tampa Bay in the first half became 17 points for the Stars, who took a 24-7 lead at the intermission and never let the Bandits back in it.
The victory gave the Stars a 10-7-1 record and some badly needed momentum going into next week's playoffs. The best part was that it came against the Bandits (10-8), another playoff team, who had beaten the Stars, 28-14, earlier this season in Tampa. The Stars had been 2-6-1 against playoff teams this year.
"Considering the caliber of our competition, it was our best game of the year," Stars Coach Jim Mora said. " . . . Three weeks ago, we couldn't get the ball in the end zone. I just like the way things are going, the way we look going into the playoffs."
The Stars' first-round playoff opponent will be determined by the outcome of tonight's game between Houston and Oakland. If Houston wins, the Stars will be seeded seventh and play at second-seeded Oakland next Sunday. If Oakland wins, the Stars will be seeded sixth and play at third-seeded New Jersey on Monday.
Tampa Bay, which had lost four straight before beating Birmingham, 17-14, last week, had a miserable first half that included two fumbles in addition to two interceptions thrown by quarterback John Reaves, who was benched in favor of backup Jimmy Jordan late in the first half.
"We all stunk," Tampa Bay Coach Steve Spurrier said. "I'm disappointed. We just played lousy."
Inside linebacker Sam Mills led the Stars' defensive show with a fumble recovery, an interception, a sack that stalled Tampa's only real drive of the first half and a force of another fumble in the fourth quarter.
Mills started by recovering running back Gary Anderson's first-quarter fumble on the Tampa 49, which led to David Trout's 40-yard field goal. On the first play of Tampa Bay's next offensive series, linebacker Mike Johnson returned Reaves' first interception 19 yards for a touchdown.
Next, cornerback Jonathan Sutton fell on running back Walter Holman's fumble at the Tampa 37. Trout missed a 49-yard field goal attempt, but Mills' interception came on the Bandits' next possession at the Tampa Bay 42. That set up Harvin's four-yard scoring run.
Mills, an all-USFL selection for two straight years, sacked Reaves late in the half to halt a drive. On third and six at the Stars' 28-yard line, with about five minutes left, he pulled Reaves down for a loss of seven. Baltimore took over at the 34 and, one play later, Bryant broke two tackles and went 66 yards for his touchdown.
"We more or less felt we had to pay them back," Mills said. "We played poorly the first time. It was embarrassing to look at the films. They moved up and down the field."
The Bandits sent out Jordan for the remainder of the game, and the third-year quarterback directed their only touchdown. It came on a 79-yard drive that took seven plays and 3:05, ending with his 16-yard pass to Steve Carter with 1:05 left in the half.
Jordan completed 14 of 22 passes for 152 yards. Reaves had 10 completions in 15 attempts for 101 yards.
The Stars settled any question of a Tampa Bay comeback on their first possession of the second half, with a seven-play, 74-yard drive culminating in Bryant's 42-yard touchdown reception, a swing pass that he broke down the side line. Fusina went on to complete his five-yard touchdown pass to Harvin on Baltimore's next possession with 32 seconds left in the quarter. Backup Tim Riordan then made his first appearance, Fusina leaving with 17 completions in 24 attempts for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
The game was Baltimore's second straight strong offensive performance; last week they defeated the Orlando Renegades, 41-10.
"I know we were disappointed with that game (the earlier loss to Tampa Bay)," Fusina said. "We've felt we could score all along. I'm in there watching films, saying, 'How can we not be able to score? We have the people to do it.' I knew we could score eventually, and it's a good time to be doing it."
Even Baltimore's attendance improved. The Stars broke 10,000 for the first time in three games, with 12,647 coming out on a sultry day. There were 8,076 no-shows.