For at least one game, the absence of Melvin Gordon was not a detriment to the Los Angeles Chargers as Austin Ekeler scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime in a 30-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts Sunday.
Ekeler ran 7 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of overtime after scoring on 1- and 55-yard passes from Philip Rivers as the Chargers recorded a victory in a season opener for the first time since 2015.
“He has been a playmaker for us over the last three years,” Rivers said. “I don’t think anybody was surprised with what plays he made today. There is something, nobody can see unless you’re out there with him, that it’s just not too big for him.
“His face and his eyes, and the communication, he’s just playing. It’s like we’re in the backyard. I saw that early on as a young player and that only has continued to be steady and be the case. It’s fun being out there with him.”
Starting in place of Gordon, who did not report to training camp as he seeks a contract extension, Ekeler caught six passes for a career-high 96 yards and ran for 58 yards on 12 carries. The 154 yards from scrimmage were also a career high.
Ekeler made the Chargers roster in 2017 as an undrafated rookie from Division II Western Colorado. This was the second game he caught two touchdown passes, the fifth running back in the Chargers 60-year history to accomplish that feat.
Ekeler’s eight receiving touchdowns are the second most in Charger history for an undrafted running back.
The Chargers missed an opportunity to seal the victory midway through the fourth quarter when a Rivers pass from the Colts’ 7-yard line intended for Keenan Allen was intercepted in the end zone by Malik Hooker, who returned the ball 26 yards to the Indianapolis 20-yard line.
“I thought there was going to be a collision there with Keenan hanging onto it,” Rivers said. “Before we broke the huddle, I looked at the score and the time, I said, `Three points is good, don’t turn it over.’
“About 10 seconds later, I turned it over. Yeah, I’m responsible for that, no question. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have thrown it, but I think there are times where you say, `Great play.’ That guy made a great play.”
The Colts then drove 80 yards on 16 plays in 7:52, tying the score on with 38 seconds left on Jacoby Brissett’s 19-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack’s two-point conversion run.
The drive included the game’s only fourth-down conversion attempt, with Brissett completing an 8-yard pass to receiver Devin Funchess on a fourth-and-3 play from the Chargers’ 49-yard line with 3:34 to play.
The Chargers received the kickoff to begin overtime and drove 75 yards on eight plays. Rivers began the drive by completing 18- and 17-yard passes to Allen and Hunter Henry. Ekeler ran 19 yards, his longest carry, on the fourth play, advancing the ball to Indianapolis ‘ 18-yard line.
The Chargers outgained Indianapolis, 435 yards to 376, and led 25-22 in first downs and 32:50-32:09 in time of possession in front of a crowd at Dignity Health Sports Park announced at 25,363.
The Chargers converted on seven of 11 third downs, 63.6 percent. Indianapolis converted seven of 13 third downs, 53.8 percent.
The Chargers committed both of the game’s turnovers. In addition to Rivers’ interception, Desmond King muffed a punt in the third quarter that was recovered by George Odum on the Chargers’ 27-yard line.
However, the Colts were unable to capitalize as 46-year-old Adam Vinatieri’s 29-yard field goal attempt was wide left. Vinatieri was also wide right on a second-quarter conversion kick and wide left on a 46-yard field goal attempt as time expired in the first half. He made a 44-yard field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter.
“Any one of those couple misses goes through and it’s a different game,” said Vinatieri, the third-oldest player in NFL history and the league’s career scoring leader. “I feel lousy because the guys played their guts off against a really good Chargers team and they played well enough to win and I didn’t help them out.”
Indianapolis coach Frank Reich said Vinatieri is “the one guy I’m not worried about.”
“We have the greatest kicker of all-time,” Reich said. “He didn’t have a good day. There were a lot of guys that didn’t. We all own what we put out there. That’s what we talked about in there. In every phase where you look at it, we all made a play, we all missed a play or two that cost us. That’s just the way it is when you go against a good football team.”
Rivers completed 25 of 34 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in his 209th consecutive start, breaking a tie with Derrick Brooks and Peyton Manning to move into seventh on the all-time list and third among quarterbacks. The list dates back to 1970 because data is incomplete prior to the AFL-NFL merger that went into effect that year.
Rivers was sacked four times.
“I thought Philip threw the football well,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. ” I thought he converted some critical third downs.”
Brissett completed 21 of 27 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns and was sacked twice in his 16th career start for the Colts, 12 of which have ended in losses.
“I thought Jacoby played really well,” Reich said. “I can’t remember too many mistakes that he made. He was in complete control. He was poised, he knew what he wanted when there were discussions on the sideline about this or that. He knew what he wanted and he made it work. That was a good start for Jacoby.”
Jacoby is succeeding Andrew Luck as Indianapolis’ starting quarterback. Luck unexpectedly announced his retirement on Aug. 24 at age 29, saying his recurrent cycle of injuries and rehabilitation had “taken the joy out of this game” and kept him from being “able to live the life I want to live.”
Mack ran for 174 yards, the most of his 27-game career, on 25 carries, including a career-long 63-yard touchdown with 7:40 left in the third quarter that cut the Chargers lead to 24-16.
Hilton caught a 4-yard pass from Brissett 10:02 before halftime for Indianapolis’ first touchdown.
The Chargers opened the scoring on their second possession, as Rivers’ 1-yard pass to Ekeler capped an 11-play, 68-yard drive. The drive was extended by an unnecessary roughness penalty against Denico Autry on a 22-yard field goal by Ty Long.
Chargers scored on both their final two possessions of the first half on Rivers’ 28-yard touchdown pass to Allen and a 40-yard field goal by Long on his first official attempt in the NFL. Allen made eight catches for a game-high 123 yards.
Ekeler broke several tackles as he turned a short pass from Rivers into a 55-yard touchdown on the Chargers first possession of the second half.
Long also handled the Chargers kicking duties in addition to his punting responsibilities as Michael Badgley was inactive because of a groin injury.
“You just can’t rush that because it is something that can linger all year,” Lynn said.
Long was signed by the Chargers Jan. 14 after kicking and punting for the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions in 2017-18. He was the first player to make a field goal, extra point and punt in his career debut since Orlindo Mare in 1997, a distinction Long did not know until being informed of it after the game.
“I came here as a punter, a kickoff guy,” Long said. “I didn’t think I was going to be hitting field goals. You talk about something I’ve dreamed about my whole life.”
Long was cut by the Washington Redskins after kicking in three preseason games in 2015 and by the Pittsburgh Steelers on May 5, 2016 after signing with them on Jan. 20, 2106.
“For about three years, no one wanted me,” said Long, who completed his college career with Alabama-Birmingham in 2014. “I couldn’t get a workout. Washington cut me. Pittsburgh cut me before I kicked a ball. I went 10 months without anything. So, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m blessed.”