The San Diego quarterback’s name was Philip, and the home team’s diminutive running back scored two touchdowns.
But Sunday night, the QB wasn’t Rivers, and the tiny rusher wasn’t Darren Sproles as Mission Valley hosted its first professional football game in 777 days. (But Chargers fans were present — with Bolts logos on tailgater tents, caps and other gear.)
The Fleet, wearing battleship gray and yellow, evened its Alliance of American Football record to 1-1 as it beat the winless Atlanta Legends 24-12 before an announced crowd of 20,000-plus (but an estimate of actually 9,000).
The game was closer than the score indicated, with all Fleet scoring coming on three Donny Hageman field goals (the longest being 46 yards) in the first three quarters. (Gamblers were happy as the Fleet covered its 9.5-point spread.)
The game was knotted 9-9 going into the final 15 minutes.
The Fleet had fallen behind 9-0 in a game aired live on Fox and the NFL Network. The rain was a nuisance, but didn’t dampen the San Diego crowd’s enthusiasm.
“I’m from Wisconsin and a couple of weeks ago it was minus-50 with the wind chill, so I’m not complaining,” Nelson told a league reporter.
Gardner scored on 8- and 7-yard runs in the fourth quarter with the score at 12-12. The Fleet couldn’t convert its two-point tries (no point-after-TDs are allowed in Alliance play. No kickoffs either.)
Nelson was 6-for-17 for 71 yards (and an interception) in the first half, but improved to 8-for-13 for another 71 yards in the second half.
“There’s a lot of things offensively to clean up, but that first victory definitely helps us going forward,” Nelson was quoted as saying. “It was long overdue as an offense. I definitely felt some emotions going into the game. We all kind of had some nerves there.
“But we settled in, and once we got rolling we were in a zone there.”
But Fleet head coach Mike Martz, the former St. Lous Rams coach, promised to have a word with QB Nelson about a play with 6:13 left in the third quarter.
That’s when Nelson, under pressure from the Legends defense, threw the ball backwards, over his shoulders, with no chance to see any receivers.
Tight end Gavin Escobar caught the ball out of bounds.
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Said Martz in the postgame press conference: “Yeah, we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to have a long discussion about that.”
Nelson would say: “I hope I don’t get cut. I was trying to throw that ball away. When I heard, ‘Pass completed,’ I was like, ‘OK, thank you, God. Next play.’ ’’
The Fleet was hoping to attract more than 30,000 fans and surpass the largest crowd during the Alliance of American Football’s first weekend of play.
However, with a temperature of 48 degrees, a 14 mph wind that made the wind-chill factor 42 degrees when the game began at 5:05 p.m. and rain during the game, the attendance was announced at 20,019.
The largest crowd of the four games during the AAF’s first weekend was 27,857 at San Antonio’s Alamodome for the Commanders 15-6 victory over the Fleet Feb. 9.
One boost to the attendance was the purchase of 1,000 tickets by Manchester Financial Group, a hotel and commercial real estate development firm, and its Chairman Emeritus Papa Doug Manchester.
The tickets were donated to the Navy SEAL Foundation, Southwest Naval Special Warfare, Third Fleet, Marine Corp Airstation Miramar and the Marine Corp Recruit Depot San Diego.
Atlanta (0-2) took a 12-9 lead on Younghoe Koo’s 26-yard field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter.
The Fleet (1-1) drove 75 yards on 12 plays on the ensuing possession, with Gardner running the final 8 yards for the team’s first touchdown of the season with nine minutes, four seconds to play. Terrell Watson ran six times for 30 yards on the drive and Gardner three times for 28 yards. The Fleet also benefited from a 15-yard illegal defense penalty.
— San Diego Fleet (@AAFFleet) February 18, 2019
The Fleet forced the Legends to punt after three plays on the next drive. The Fleet then drove 60 yards on six plays, including Gardner’s 31-yard run, the Fleet’s longest play of the game, three plays before his 7-yard touchdown run with 4:00 left.
The Fleet outgained the Legends 313 yards to 222, led 22-14 in first downs and 33:38-26:22 in time of possession.
In his first start, Fleet quarterback Nelson was sacked three times, three fewer than Mike Bercovici in the Fleet’s 15-6 loss to San Antonio.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Simms — son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms — completed 17 of 25 passes for 160 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He was also sacked three times.
Younghoe Koo, the Los Angeles Chargers kicker for the first four games of the 2017 season, opened the scoring with a 29-yard field goal on the game’s opening possession.
The AAF has eliminated kickoffs as a safety measure. Games start with a snap from the offense’s own 25-yard line.
The Fleet won the coin toss and chose to defer the choice until the start of the second half.
Atlanta drove from their 25-yard line to the Fleet’s 11-yard line, where Simms’ pass on a third down and 3 yards to go was incomplete, prompting Koo’s field goal try.
The Legends increased their lead to 9-0 with 3:21 left in the first quarter on Simms’ 19-yard touchdown pass to Jones, two plays after defensive back Carlos Merritt intercepted a Nelson pass at Atlanta’s 8-yard line and returned the ball 7 yards.
— San Diego Fleet (@AAFFleet) February 18, 2019
Simms threw a 26-yard pass to Montay Crockett on the first play of the drive.
Hageman kicked field goals on three consecutive possessions, tying the score 9-9.
Hageman’s first field goal was a 46-yarder with 1:39 left in the first half. The San Diego State alumnus kicked a 43-yarder eight seconds before halftime, six plays after Ryan Moeller intercepted a Simms pass at the Fleet 40-yard line and returned the ball 8 yards.
Hageman kicked a 26-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half, which began on a 31-yard pass interference on defensive back Desmond Lawrence, giving the Fleet a first down on the Legends 44-yard line.
Hageman also kicked a 33-yard field goal with 35 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
— City News Service contributed to this report.
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