Doug Flutie was sorely missed by New Jersey tonight as the Baltimore Stars endured a second-half comeback to defeat the Generals, 20-17, in their first-round U.S. Football League playoff game at the Meadowlands.
The victory advanced the defending champion Stars into a semifinal playoff game Sunday in Birmingham against the Stallions.
The Stars got a league-record 91-yard punt return for a touchdown from Garcia Lane and two touchdowns from Chuck Fusina, one rushing and one passing, to take a 20-7 lead at the half. Then they sat back and watched New Jersey and backup quarterback Ron Reeves stage one of the more exciting comebacks that has been seen this season -- but one that might have succeeded had Flutie, still recovering from a broken collarbone, been able to play.
The Generals turned two interceptions of Fusina into a touchdown and a field goal to trail by three points going into the final quarter. But Baltimore's second-ranked defense finally shut them down.
Kerry Justin's second interception gave the Generals their last chance. It came on third and five at the New Jersey 42, with two minutes remaining. The Generals had no timeouts left and the Stars appeared in control. But Justin picked off the ball in a crowd and fell out of bounds.
Reeves completed passes to Herschel Walker for 11 yards and to Sam Bowers for 12 more to get to Baltimore's 42. But on third and 10, he threw long down the sideline for Walter Broughton, and safety Mike Lush intercepted it for the Stars with 57 seconds left.
Fusina completed 10 of 20 passes for 98 yards three interceptions. New Jersey's Herschel Walker was held to 66 yards on 25 carries before a Giants Stadium crowd of 26,982.
The Stars held a 20-7 lead at the half, thanks to Lane's two spectacular punt returns, the first for a 91-yard score and the second setting up Fusina's first rushing touchdown of the year. A penalty-aided two-minute drill just before intermission resulted in Fusina's five-yard scoring pass to Scott Fitzkee.
The Generals endured a horrid first quarter: they did not get out of their own territory. And the decision to start Reeves instead of Flutie appeared to be a bad choice. They finally improved in the second quarter, Walker scoring on a one-yard run, but the Stars were dominating.
Lane's first punt return came on Rick Partridge's punt with 8:30 remaining, the Generals' opening possession. Lane took the 46-yard kick at his nine, cut to the sideline and went 91 yards for the touchdown, reversing his field twice and beating three Generals in pursuit.
Lane broke his own record with the run; last year, he went 72 yards on a return, also against New Jersey.
"The last time we played them we ran exclusively to the left (on punt returns)," Lane said. "This game we ran it to the right and there was a beautiful wall when I hit the corner."
Five minutes later, Lane nearly duplicated the feat. With Partridge punting from his 18, Lane took the ball at the Stars' 35, made the same cut, spun out of two tackles and went 35 yards to the Generals' 20.
That set up Fusina's touchdown four plays later, the quarterback darting inside to score on a fake sweep on second and goal at the five. David Trout's extra point was wide to the right, but the Stars had a 13-0 lead with 41 seconds left in the first quarter.
Reeves, meanwhile, overthrew his only three pass attempts in the first quarter. He did not complete a pass until the first play of the second quarter and that drive netted nothing. But at least it seemed to be the start of something big.
On the Generals' next possession, Reeves drove them 74 yards in nine plays, completing five straight passes, including a 20-yarder to Jeff Spek and a 25-yarder to Bowers. Walker completed the effort with his one-yard dive on third down, landing squarely on his helmet just over the goal line.
Baltimore's final scoring drive of the half was aided by a bizarre penalty. Starting at their 21 with a little over two minutes remaining, the Stars moved to the Generals' 42 before stalling when Fusina's pass to James Caver on third and one was broken up. Sean Landeta came on to punt with 51 seconds remaining and a flag was thrown for delay of game. But a flag also was thrown against the Generals for encroachment.
That gave the Stars first down at the 37, and Fusina immediately completed a 32-yard pass to David Riley to get to the five. On the next play, he threw to Fitzkee in the end zone.
New Jersey's defense finally showed itself in the third quarter. Baltimore was held to one first down and Fusina was intercepted on consecutive possessions, the Generals converting the turnovers into 10 points to trail by 20-17 in the opening moments of the fourth period.
Inside linebacker Kyle Borland had the second interception, and it became Maurice Carthon's three-yard touchdown just 46 seconds into the fourth quarter. Borland intercepted the pass intended for Caver on second and seven at the Baltimore 24. The Generals couldn't do anything at first, winding up with fourth and six at the 20, and Roger Ruzek's 37-yard field goal attempt went wide.
But the Stars were offside, giving the Generals fourth and one at the 15, and they went for it. Walker took the pitch from Reeves and swept 12 yards to the three, and on first and goal, Carthon burst over.
Baltimore had appeared ready to make it a rout at the start of the second half, Lane recovering Walker's fumble on first and 10 at the Generals' 23. Instead, another ill-timed penalty gave the Generals a break: Allen Harvin scored on a 13-yard sweep, but the touchdown was called back: holding on tackle Bill Dugan.
On the next play, Justin intercepted Fusina's pass at the New Jersey 19 and returned it to the Baltimore 40. A personal foul penalty got the Generals to the 23 and Ruzek kicked a 40-yard field goal.
Baltimore 13 7 0 0 20
New Jersey 00 7 3 7 17
B -- Lane 91 punt return (Trout kick), 6:30
B -- Fusina 4 run (kick failed), 14:19
NJ -- Walker 1 run (Ruzek kick), 12:34
B -- Fitzkee 5 pass from Fusina (Trout kick), 14:31
NJ -- FG Ruzek 40, 13:13
NJ -- Carthon 3 run (Ruzek kick), 0:46.
A -- 26,982 Stars Generals First downs 8 16 Rushes-yards 29-85 39-105 Passing yards 98 172 Return yards 206 144 Passing 10-20-3 16-32-2 Sacks by-yards 2-10 1-6 Punts-average 7-42 5-45 Fumbles-lost 2-0 5-2 Penalties-yards 6-52 3-14 Time of possession 26:17 33:43 INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING -- Baltimore: Bryant 18-54, Harvin 6-22, Fusina 5-9. New Jersey: Walker 25-66, Carthon 13-35, Reeves 1-4.
PASSING -- Baltimore: Fusina 10-20-3, 98 yards. New Jersey: Reeves, 16-32-2, 172.
RECEIVING -- Baltimore: Bryant 3-24, Caver 2-19, Fitzkee 2-13, Riley 1-33, Dunek 1-5, Harvin 1-4. New Jersey: Bowers 5-64, Walker 4-44, Collins 4-34, Carthon 2-10, Spek 1-20.