CANTON, Ohio — The New Jersey Generals hadn’t won since April, and for a while on Sunday night, it looked like they had forgotten how to do it.
They even came dangerously close to throwing away a 21-point lead in the final 12 minutes of what would’ve been their final game of the season. Instead, they barely held on to beat the Philadelphia Stars, 37-33 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, snapping a five-game losing streak. But it was enough to keep their season alive as they head into the final weekend of the USFL season.
In fact, every team in the North Division is still alive with one more game to go.
"We never lost faith," said Generals quarterback De’Andre Johnson. "I feel like we’re just getting started."
All four North teams surely feel that way, since the playoffs for them essentially start now. The Generals (3-6) will play the Pittsburgh Maulers (3-6) on Saturday afternoon in Canton, and the Stars (4-5) will face the Michigan Panthers (3-6) on Sunday night in Detroit in what are basically elimination games. The playoff berths will go to the two winners, while the losers will go home.
The Generals didn’t figure to be in that position after the way their season had fallen apart with a string of heart-breaking losses — none of which were by more than nine points. They headed into this game knowing they were desperate, and with a confidence that had been beaten down. Even head coach Mike Riley wasn’t sure how his team would respond.
"That’s not easy to do, after a lot of disappointing losses. It’s kind of sometimes hard to rally," Riley said. "But I thought our guys took it to them right from the start.
They certainly did, starting with a bolt of lightning on the opening kickoff, which Cam Echols-Luper took 85 yards, untouched, right up the middle of the field for a touchdown and a quick, 7-0 New Jersey lead. That gave them the "little special bounce in our step" that Riley knew his team would need.
They also got a boost by the return of Johnson (15 of 20, 213 yards), their QB who missed last weekend’s game with a concussion. And Riley helped them by getting creative on offense, keeping the Generals energized and the Stars’ defense off-balance. Like midway through the second quarter, when his team lined up at the Stars' 1 in a formation that looked like they were about to run a quarterback sneak. Instead, Johnson took the snap and pitched the ball to running back Darius Victor, who then threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Braedon Bowman just as he took a hit.
That put the Generals up 17-10, but it wasn’t their last bit of razzle-dazzle. Late in the third quarter, they pulled another trick play out of their sleeve when Victor took a handoff and flipped the ball to Echols-Luper on an apparent reverse. But Echols-Luper pulled up and threw the ball back to his quarterback, Johnson, for a 14-yard gain to the Philadelphia 7. One play later, Victor scored his second rushing touchdown of the game (to go with his one passing touchdown) for a 30-16 Generals lead.
They then made it 37-16 on a 22-yard touchdown run by Trey Williams with 13:25 remaining, and it looked at that moment that New Jersey had the game in hand.
But that’s not how the Stars saw it at all.
"These guys are competitive. They’re going to play," said Philadelphia coach Bart Andrus. "If there’s time on the clock they’re going to play and play hard. It’s just a matter of one guy making a play. Then it kind of catches fire. That’s what happened in the fourth quarter."
The guy making those plays was Stars quarterback Case Cookus, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing seven times for 59 yards. He powered the Philly comeback in the final 12 minutes, hitting Terry Wright for a 26-yard touchdown with 11:50 remaining and Diondre Overton for a 6-yard touchdown to pull within a touchdown, 37-30, with 4:19 left in the game.
"We don’t like playing that way," Andrus said. "We would hope we have things in hand before we have to scramble.
The scrambling almost worked, though. They even got inside the New Jersey 20 inside the final two minutes. That’s when Andrus opted to let Luis Aguilar kick a 42-yard field goal to make it 37-33 with 1:39 left so he could take advantage of a USFL rule — iInstead of an onside kick try, teams can choose to take the ball for a fourth-and-12 play from their own 33-yard line to see if they can convert and get a drive going.
And they did, when Cookus threw a dart over the middle in the direction of Wright, and Generals safety Shalom Luani knocked him down, drawing a pass interference penalty on the play.
"We had a shot with Terry," Cookus said. "If I put a little bit more are on the ball we possibly would’ve scored."
It was still good enough to give them a shot, though, with the ball at their own 45 with about a minute and a half to go. But the Generals got a Herculean performance on the final series by defensive end Hercules Mata’Afa, who had two sacks in the final four plays to save the game.
"I have never seen two better individual pass rushes," Riley said. "It was an incredible effort by Hercules."
Riley didn’t seem bothered that his team was pushed to the brink and needed those two sacks to get their first home win of the season. "We had to hang on at the end and fight," he said, "which is probably good and fitting."
It was certainly needed. The Generals leaned on their league-leading rushing attack, gaining 147 yards on the ground (including 51 on 11 carries from Victor). They didn’t turn the ball over once. And most importantly, they didn’t fold under the pressure at the end. When the game was on the line, they found a way to get it done.
"It just boosts the team morale," Johnson said. "It gets us in the right direction going forward."
The Stars, meanwhile, aren’t exactly headed in the wrong direction. They got a little bit of momentum from their wild comeback attempt. And the disappointment of not being able to wrap up a playoff berth and the North Division title was overshadowed by the chance they still have to take care of everything next week.
"We are in control of our own destiny," Cookus said. We can look back on this and we’re going to learn from it, but we have an opportunity to still make the playoffs. We’ve still got an opportunity."
They all do in the USFL’s wild, wild North. With one game left, they all have a chance to put the entire season behind them and get into the playoffs. All any of them need is one more win.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.