SAN DIEGO — The Salt Lake Stallions very nearly overcame five turnovers and a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of their first matchup against Western Conference foe San Diego Fleet on Saturday night.
They left too much time and gave up one long pass play in the final minute, though, to set up a 44-yard Donny Hageman field goal as time expired as the Fleet beat the Stallions 27-25 at SDCCU Stadium.
The loss dropped Salt Lake to 1-4 on what has so far been a roller-coaster inaugural year filled with moments of hope, followed too often by instances of pain.
Saturday night may have been the most painful so far, after the Stallions rallied from 13 points down to take a 25-24 lead with 51 seconds to play. San Diego quarterback Mike Bercovici completed a 45-yard pass to Dontez Ford to the Salt Lake 30-yard line with 38 seconds to play that set up Hageman to deliver the winning field goal.
"You turn it over five times, two of them for touchdowns, your chance of winning is not real good, even though we came back and had a chance at the end," Stallions coach Dennis Erickson said in his postgame press conference.
Fleet cornerback Kameron Kelly's third interception of Salt Lake quarterback Josh Woodrum — a 22-yard pick-six with 9:26 left in the fourth quarter — put San Diego ahead 24-11. The Fleet turned five Stallions turnovers into 18 points, including two third-quarter touchdowns on a 41-yard fumble return for a score and another fumble that led to a touchdown pass on the next play.
Two other Fleet takeaways thwarted promising Salt Lake drives deep into San Diego territory in the first half. Early in the second quarter, Kelly intercepted a Woodrum pass at the San Diego 16 with the Stallions trying to add to an 8-6 lead. Then, in the final minute of the first half after a penalty nullified a Stallions touchdown, Kelly again intercepted Woodrum, this time at the San Diego 6-yard line.
"It all comes down to the first half," Woodrum said postgame. "I turned the ball over two times. Even though we were winning, we can't turn the ball over twice in the red zone. ... We get touchdowns there, and it's not even a close game."
Still, the Stallions found a way to rally. Following Kelly's pick-six, Salt Lake drove 75 yards and scored on a 4-yard Joel Bouagnon run, his second touchdown of the game. After a missed two-point attempt, the Stallions trailed 24-17 with four minutes to play.
Salt Lake forced San Diego (3-2) into a three-and-out, giving the Stallions just over two minutes to drive 76 yards for a chance to win. Woodrum, who threw for a season-high 380 yards, was sacked on the first play of the drive, but two big pass plays — 30 yards to De'Mornay Pierson-El and 42 to Adonis Jennings — set the Stallions up with a first-and-goal at the Fleet 6.
A San Diego illegal contact penalty on fourth-and-goal kept the Salt Lake drive alive, and Woodrum found tight end Nick Truesdell over the middle for a 6-yard touchdown, as Truesdell reached the ball over the goal line.
Salt Lake then took the lead on the two-point attempt. Woodrum was forced from the pocket, rolled right, then rolled back left and lofted a pass to wideout Kenny Bell to give the Stallions a 25-24 lead.
Bercovici, who threw for 304 yards, and San Diego found a way to win, though, as the Fleet's longest pass of the day set up the game-winning field goal in a game where Salt Lake outgained the Fleet 424 yards to 322.1 comment on this story
"Them going down and kicking that field goal at the end, there's a lot of emotions up and down," Erickson said. "You go from thinking you're going to lose, to thinking you're going to win, then you lose — I've been in a lot of football games in my life, but I don't know if I've ever been in one that ended like that.
"That's well over 300 football games. That's why my hair is the color that it is."
NOTE: Former Utes wide receiver Kaelin Clay left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury. He was hurt carrying the ball on an end-around on Salt Lake's first scoring drive of the game.