By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — At the lectern, Mike Riley sat down between running back Darius Victor and cornerback Dravon Askew-Henry, and admired a blue envelope handed to him by a United States Football League official.
"Would you look at that?" Riley told Victor.
"That’s our invitation," Victor said.
"Our invitation to the playoffs," Riley said.
I walked up to the table where the trio was seated to examine it more closely, and Riley held the letter aloft. It was signed by Pro Football Hall of Fame Village President Operations Mike Levy.
The New Jersey Generals are bound for Canton.
"It's a really fun team to coach," Riley said. "They compete. I think they're good teammates to one another. Really proud to be with them. And we are really proud to be the first team to make it to the first year of the USFL playoffs."
Despite playing without quarterback De'Andre Johnson for the first time this season, the Generals became the first team to secure a postseason spot in the inaugural USFL season. They did it with their sixth consecutive victory, 20-13, on Saturday against Todd Haley’s Tampa Bay Bandits at Protective Stadium.
New Jersey quarterback Luis Perez played the entire game, completing 19 of 25 pass attempts for 174 yards with a touchdown.
But it was the defense that shined most for the Generals, creating three turnovers and harrying Bandits quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, who completed just 17 of 37 pass attempts for 234 yards, with one TD and three interceptions.
"[Ta'amu] was efficient," Haley said. "He made some really big throws for us in critical situations. We just need to start faster."
The Generals' victory afforded them three weeks to get healthy ahead of the playoff push, which begins with the semifinals on June 25. It also opened the door for the Birmingham Stallions to clinch the second of four spots with a win Sunday against Pittsburgh.
The Stallions are the only team to defeat the Generals this season.
In their first scoring drive, the Generals gained at least 10 yards on five of eight plays, including Victor's 20-yard scoring run straight up the middle of Pepper Johnson’s defense.
Victor finished with 72 rushing yards on 14 carries and the TD.
Earlier this season, FOX Sports sideline reporter Brock Huard asked to measure Victor’s thighs. Victor said he consented because he wanted to know how large they were, too. Turns out they’re 30 inches around.
"He [Huard] was like, ‘If I had a tape measure, would you let me measure them?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ The rest is history." Victor said. "Thick thighs do save lives."
On fourth-and-3 with just 1:32 left in the first quarter, and his team on the New Jersey 48 yard-line, Haley called up an "Ah, damn" screen — where the defense ends the play saying, "Ah, damn."
After lining up just off the right tackle and reporting as eligible, offensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi sprinted across the field on a play-action flag route and made a stupendous catch-and-run for 32 yards.
"Our secret weapon," Haley joked.
Kaufusi, a former basketball player at Brigham Young who stands 6-foot-9, looked like he’d been playing receiver most of his career. Bandits kicker Tyler Rausa converted a 34-yard field goal for Tampa’s first points of the ballgame.
"That was awesome," Kaufusi said on the TV broadcast immediately following the scoring drive. "We’d been planning it for a few weeks, but finally getting to do it was sweet."
But that was perhaps the only time the Generals' defense was caught out of position in the first half. Chris Dishman’s defense held Tampa to 72 total yards — and just 21 on the ground.
Stealing from a Bandit
Askew-Henry picked off Ta’amu twice in the second quarter. The first came in Tampa territory, and Victor punched it into the end zone three plays later to give the Generals a double-digit lead.
To make the Bandits’ chance worse, Ta’amu threw his third interception of the game — his last two coming on back-to-back passes — to Generals safety Shalom Luani.
Luani has picked off four passes while playing in only five games. He’s tied for the league lead in INTs with Philadelphia Stars cornerback Channing Stribling and Houston Gamblers cornerback Will Likely, and first among safeties.
Comeback falls short
Despite beginning the game with just seven completions along with those three interceptions on 21 passing attempts, Ta’amu completed a touchdown pass to John Franklin III for a Bandits touchdown that cut the Generals' lead to 20-13.
After the Bandits' defense held up, Ta'amu had the ball with five minutes to go and a chance to tie or take the lead. But, on fourth-and-14 from the Generals' 46-yard line, Haley chose to punt, pinning New Jersey on its own 9-yard line with 4:53 left to play.
The gamble on his defense paid off, and Haley’s offense returned to the field with 1:54 left and two timeouts in what would have to be an 83-yard march.
Wideout Vinny Papale gave the Bandits life when he snagged a 15-yard catch on third-and-11 to move the sticks. Going fast, Ta’amu then found tight end Cheyenne O’Grady for 26 yards for another big gain. A pass interference call on the next play moved the Bandits to the Generals' 29.
Tampa moved to the New Jersey 16 when De’Quan Hampton caught a pass on a crossing route. With the game on the line and 35 seconds left on fourth-and-7, corner Askew-Henry batted away what could’ve been a TD pass to Papale to seal the victory.
"I put myself in uncomfortable situations in practice," Askew-Henry said, "so when game time comes, it's pretty much easy."
Or so he made it look in the most important game of the Generals’ season — yet.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.