The Baltimore Stars this past season switched playing addresses, traveled three hours to home games and were evicted from their Philadelphia offices. Some things haven't changed, however: they once again will play for the U.S. Football League championship.
Today, the Stars took a three-touchdown lead in the first half and held off the Birmingham Stallions, 28-14, in a semifinal playoff game before an estimated 23,250 in Legion Field. Running back Kelvin Bryant did much of the damage against the league's top-ranked defense, running 76 yards for one score, catching a 70-yard pass for another and setting a USFL playoff mark with 217 total yards.
Thus, Sunday in Giants Stadium at East Rutherford, N.J., the Stars will make their third trek to the USFL championship game.
"Just an annual trip," said one member of the Stars' party.
Baltimore Coach Jim Mora said, "One of our players said this week that when you've tasted being champions (1984) and being in the championship (1983) and all the things that go along with it, you want to go back."
Baltimore earned a title date with Oakland much the way it advanced to the championship last year. The Stars converted a 20-0 halftime lead into a 20-10 semifinal victory over Birmingham 364 days ago in Franklin Field in Philadelphia. The Stars led, 21-0, at the half today, but only after the Stallions failed to score three times after moving inside Baltimore's 25-yard line.
Cornerback Jonathan Sutton gave Baltimore a 7-0 advantage on the fourth play. He stepped in front of a pass to Ken Toler from Cliff Stoudt and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.
"I took off running as soon as I let go" of the pass, Stoudt said. "Sutton just squatted on it. It was Sutton wasn't it? He ran by me so fast."
It was Sutton's interception that, Stoudt said, took "a little starch" out of Birmingham. Yet it was Stars quarterback Chuck Fusina and Bryant who left the Stallions limp.
Four minutes after Sutton's touchdown, Fusina passed 30 yards to an open Victor Harrison for a touchdown. Fusina, who completed 10 of 16 passes for 210 yards on the balmy afternoon, teamed with Bryant, who ran for 116 yards and caught four passes for 101 more, on a playoff record 70-yard pass play for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead in the second quarter.
"I have a lot of respect for Birmingham's defense, but their defense may be easier to break a big play on than it is to gain a simple four to five yards," Mora said.
The Stallions' offense righted itself slightly after gaining just 19 yards in 14 plays in the first quarter. Birmingham moved to the Stars' 25 early in the second quarter, but Danny Miller's 43-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright. It was his first miss in 12 tries in playoff competition.
Next, the Stallions got to Baltimore's nine, but Stoudt threw three incompletions. And, at Baltimore's three with four seconds remaining in the first half, the Stars' Scott Woerner tipped away a pass in the end zone.
"That hurt us," Birmingham center Mark Battaglia said. "We knew we were digging ourselves a hole. What can you do? We were trying, but there was nothing we could do."
Baltimore added to Birmingham's misfortune in the fourth period. Bryant ran 76 yards to widen the margin to 28-0. Bryant had set the playoff record for longest run from scrimmage with a 54-yarder last year against Birmingham.
"Bryant is good," Stallions defensive back Chuck Clanton said. "You sure can't take anything away from him."
Birmingham managed to come back for a 14-yard touchdown pass from Stoudt to Joey Jones midway through the fourth. The Stallions closed the scoring on halfback Joe Cribbs' one-yard run with 55 seconds left.
Stoudt completed 29 of 50 passes for 327 yards and also led the Stallions with 30 yards rushing on nine carries. Cribbs was limited to 13 yards on nine attempts.
For Mora, the victory was especially pleasing in this unsettled season. The defending champions fell to 1-3-1 after a 7-3 loss to Birmingham at College Park, but won five of their last six regular-season games. The only defeat during that span was a 14-7 loss at Birmingham last month.
"I don't think anyone over there has ever been involved in what this team's gone through," Mora said, pointing to his players in the locker room. "I haven't, and I've been coaching 80 . . . I mean 25 years."
Fusina considered it a feat for the team to earn a spot in the title game after moving to Baltimore last November, yet, for the most part, practicing and residing in Philadelphia.
He began to rattle off a list of those events: "Moving, being evicted, traveling three hours for every game, all the critics."
Mora said, "There were times this season when this team was counted out. (The players) had their doubts. I had mine, too."