SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. And for the Salt Lake Stallions, that was good enough.
The Stallions beat the San Diego Fleet 8-3 on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a game that featured missed opportunities on both sides of the field. With the Fleet driving in the final minute, defensive back Steve Williams intercepted a Mike Bercovici pass at the Salt Lake 11 with 32 seconds to play, and the Stallions ran out the clock.
Both teams squandered opportunities in the opposing team’s territory, as both the Stallions (3-5) and Fleet (3-5) finished with three turnovers and San Diego missed a chip shot field goal attempt in the third quarter.
“We got some turnovers back, which was the difference in the game,” Salt Lake coach Dennis Erickson said.
The Stallions improved to 3-1 in home games, with two weeks left this season. More importantly, Salt Lake didn’t lose ground in the Western Conference standings to keep its hopes of a playoff berth alive.
“Technically we’re still alive in the playoff race. If some stuff works out and chaos happens, I think we can get in at 5-5. It’s huge," Salt Lake quarterback Josh Woodrum said.
Salt Lake was able to move the ball in the first half but only put eight points on the board, while holding the Fleet to 59 total yards in the opening two quarters.
“We practiced probably as well as we ever have this week on offense and to come out there and play like that just really boggles my mind,” said San Diego coach Mike Martz, whose team converted just 3 of 15 third-down attempts.
The Stallions offense stalled through much of the second half, and by game’s end the Fleet had 264 yards of total offense to 245 for Salt Lake.
Salt Lake, which had 180 yards of offense in the first half, scored the game's only touchdown on a Joel Bouagnon 2-yard run with 1:18 until halftime. The play, though, came with anxiety, as Woodrum fumbled the snap before collecting it and handing off to Bouagnon.
Former BYU wide receiver Jordan Leslie caught a pass all alone in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion to make it 8-0 at halftime.
San Diego’s Donny Hageman, who hit the game-winning field goal as time expired the first time these teams met, didn’t have as good a day Saturday. He missed a 25-yarder wide left in the third quarter before adding a 29-yard field goal with 10:45 to play for the Fleet’s only score.
San Diego had a chance to win late, getting the ball back at its own 13-yard line with 1:39 to play. The Fleet even converted a fourth-and-12 play to reach the Salt Lake 30 with 40 seconds to play. But Williams’ first interception of the year sealed it for Salt Lake.
“They’re the best defense in the league," Woodrum, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 155 yards, said of the Stallions defense. "We’ve known that this whole year. Our offense has not been able to put up as many points and yards as we wanted to but our defense has kept us in almost every single game. When it’s all said and done, they’re the reason we’re going to have success."
Williams finished with three pass deflections and three tackles to go with the interception, while Greer Martini led the Stallions with nine tackles. Ryan Moeller had three takeaways for the Fleet, including two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
In a sequence that’s become far too familiar for the Stallions this season, Salt Lake had a pair of promising drives end in turnovers in the first half.
On third-and-8 at the San Diego 27 on Salt Lake’s first drive, Woodrum was intercepted by Moeller at the Fleet 5-yard line. Woodrum then fumbled the ball on a third-and-goal at the Fleet 1 in the second quarter and Moeller recovered the ball in the end zone. That ended a 17-play, 92-yard drive with no points and kept the game scoreless.
San Diego had all three of its turnovers after halftime. They included a fumble recovery by former Utah State cornerback Will Davis, as well as an interception by Salt Lake’s C.J. Smith on a drive that had reached the Salt Lake 33.
"I can definitely say we fought and so did the Stallions,” Moeller said.Comment on this story
The toughest news for the Stallions defense was the loss of former Utah linebacker Gionni Paul, who left the game in the first quarter with an arm injury. While defending a pass downfield on a third-down play, he was sandwiched between the wide receiver and fellow defender Cody Brown.
After the game, Erickson confirmed Paul broke his arm and is lost for the year.
That Stallions, though, will take the win after having lost three games earlier this year by four points or less.
“The good thing is, we won. We’ve lost a lot of those games, probably three or four just exactly like that,” Erickson said.