Greg Reaves, Bandits defense clamp down late to edge Panthers
In a game that turned into a shootout, the Bandits made big stops late to turn back the Panthers, RJ Young writes.
By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In a matchup that featured the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in the inaugural United States Football League Draft, two former AFC head coaches and nearly 700 yards of offense, the Tampa Bay Bandits sealed a 27-20 victory against the Michigan Panthers on Friday night.
The South Division remains undefeated against the North Division at 5-0.
Jordan Ta'amu leads Bandits over Panthers, 27-20
The contest was still in the balance with less than two minutes to go when Bandits linebacker Greg Reaves forced Panthers running back Cam Scarlett to fumble, this after Scarlett caught a pass that made Shea Patterson just the second quarterback this season to pass for 300 yards or more with 1:47 left to play.
"Turnovers were the game," said Bandits linebacker Christian Sam. "Turnovers win games."
Sam recorded seven tackles — including a tackle for loss — three passes defended and an interception. His pick came off a pass that Reaves tipped.
As Sam sat next to his head coach, Todd Haley, and across from quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, he wondered why he was even asked to speak at the postgame media conference.
"Greg balled," Sam said. "I don’t even know why I’m up here and not him. Greg played a hell of a game."
Reaves ended the night with seven tackles, including two tackles for loss, and created both turnovers that won a game that turned out to be a shootout.
Patterson finished the night completing 23 of 37 pass attempts for 306 yards with a touchdown and an interception. It was by far the best game played by the USFL’s No. 1 overall pick.
Fisher said Patterson’s play was indicative of a player settling down and settling at the halfway mark of season.
Shea Patterson dazzles with 306-yard effort
"It really is," Fisher said. "It's just more time, more reps, and the offense. You know, he settled down, made some really good throws, but that's the immediate answer."
The Panthers put up 409 yards of offense to the Bandits’ 273, though Ta’amu and the Tampa offense got off just 49 snaps to Michigan’s 70. Ta’amu completed just 15 of his 24 pass attempts, but two of those went for touchdowns. He also completes passes to seven different targets.
Ta’amu’s 207 passing yards meant the two former Ole Miss and Kansas City Chief teammates combined to pass for 513 yards in their first game against each other at any level.
Entering Week 5, the Panthers boasted the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, and they should be after choosing to run the ball on 70 percent of their plays over the previous two games. At the start of the game, Eric Marty’s offense looked like it would try to keep cooking with that recipe for offensive success with what had been an anemic passing attack.
After the Panthers defense forced Tampa to punt on its first possession, running back Reggie Corbin showed why he is the league’s leading rusher and busted up the middle for a 20-yard gain.
Corbin had averaged 142 rush yards per game over his last two contests and 100 rushing yards for the season before being stymied by Pepper Johnson’s Bandit defense.
Corbin finished with just 28 rush yards on 12 carries.
FLEA FLICKER TO FLY
A double pass from Patterson to Joe Walker to tight end Ryan O’Malley went 30 yards for six and was O’Malley’s first touchdown of the season.
Panthers complete double-pass touchdown vs. Bandits
O’Malley was activated after former Ohio State tight end Marcus Baugh couldn’t go, and he was the recipient of Walker’s prodigious arm — a former Delaware quarterback who passed for 2,200 yards.
The pass took advantage of a new rule in the USFL in which a double-pass is not only allowed but the first pass can be a forward pass as long as it’s thrown behind the line-of-scrimmage.
Tampa responded with its own trick play — a flea flicker — that running back Juwan Washington pitched back to Ta’amu, only for Ta’amu to fumble the ball, recover it, spin, and then throw a jump ball to former LSU wideout Derrick Dillon over the middle. Dillon snatched it out of the air and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown.
"I've always been taught when everything around me is chaotic that I gotta stay calm and collected, and I still needed to toss it back," Ta’amu said. "I knew I had one bounce to get it and make something happen. I was gonna throw it away, but soon as I grabbed the ball I saw Derek Dillon in my vision, made a spin move and kind of gave him a 50-50 shot."
Bandits' Ta'amu throws TD on flea flicker
"I will say that's one of the greatest plays I've ever seen in my entire career," Haley said. "Not the way we drew it up. It was our first play, but we got backed up. So, when we got to call it, Jordan made it work. It was pretty impressive."
After one quarter, Walker had thrown for more yards on one pass than Patterson (0-for-2). While Ta’amu began better — 2-for-3 for 52 yards with a TD — the Bandits held the ball for just two minutes and six seconds of the first quarter.
Patterson completed nine of 16 pass attempts for 128 yards in the first half. He had passed for 67 yards on 17 attempts in his entire previous outing and 115 total over his last two games. With those 128 yards in the first two periods, Patterson had already played his second-best statistical game of the season.
Ta’amu completed just four of nine passes for 57 yards in the first half, but the Bandits' offense held the ball for half the time (9:46) the Panthers' offense did (20:14).
Michigan specialist Cole Murphy both kept the drive alive with a fourth-down pass on a fake punt, and then put the Panthers ahead with a 36-yard field goal.
With 4:01 left in the half, the Bandits counterstruck quickly, with Washington finishing off a six-play drive to move ahead 13-10, following a missed extra point by kicker Tyler Rausa.
But Murphy added another field goal with just 12 seconds left in the half to tie the score at 13-13.
Michigan's defense had given up just nine points (all field goals) in the second half all season, but Ta’amu changed all that when he found wide receiver John Franklin III for six with a 43-yard touchdown toss. That gave the Bandits a 20-13 lead.
Patterson tried to counter, but after driving to the red zone, he threw a pass that was tipped at the line and intercepted by Sam to put an end to the Panthers’ drive.
Patterson would get another opportunity, though, and he’d capitalize with a touchdown pass to former Iowa State Cyclone La’Michael Pettway for 25 yards. That made it 20-20 with six minutes left.
It took the Bandits just over two minutes and six plays to respond with a go-ahead touchdown behind Washington’s 30-yard rush. With starter BJ Emmons sidelined, Washington essentially handled the running back duties by himself.
His play was indicative of the kind of grit that Haley has come to love about his team.
USFL Helmet Cam: Juwan Washington breaks off 30-yard run
"I’m gonna say the same thing I say every time with these guys," Haley said. "I really truly enjoy being around them. They care. They love football. They run through walls and do whatever is necessary to be ready to play a game and everything did not go our way in that game, but they stuck together and found a way to win a game which we needed desperately."
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.