Austin Ekeler has been a solid backup to Melvin Gordon in the Los Angeles Chargers’ backfield the past two seasons, but he hasn’t gotten much attention while sitting behind one of the top rushers in the league.
Ekeler isn’t going to be overlooked any longer after his performance on Sunday as the Chargers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 30-24 in overtime.
With Gordon holding out for a new contract, Ekeler had a career-best 154 yards from scrimmage. He also scored three touchdowns, including the winner on a 7-yard run with 5:01 remaining in overtime to cap off an eight-play, 75-yard drive.
“He looked good,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said after the franchise’s first OT win in an opener. “He broke tackles and made plays. He showed speed through the hole. He’s shown that all along, but he’s never done it from the lead role.”
The third-year running back went undrafted before signing with Los Angeles in 2017. It is his second multi-TD game but the first in which he had a rushing and receiving score. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ekeler is the first undrafted player since Dan Reeves in 1967 to have at least 150 scrimmage yards, two receiving TDs and a rushing touchdown in a game.
“I can’t focus on Melvin not being there. Today was a little show of what we could do,” said Ekeler, who had 10 carries for 58 yards and six receptions for 96 yards. “In the past I still made plays on the field. People are acting like I came out of nowhere. I made plays, but it was more limited because Melvin was here.”
The Chargers’ running game was effective, averaging six yards per carry with four rushes over 10 yards. Justin Jackson had six carries for 57 yards, with most of his work coming in the first half.
Rivers, who made his 209th consecutive start to pass Peyton Manning for the third-longest streak among NFL QBs, completed 25 of 34 passes for 333 yards. It was the fifth time Rivers has thrown three or more TD passes in an opener.
Ekeler opened the scoring with a 1-yard reception in the first quarter. He then went 55 yards on a screen pass on Los Angeles’ first drive of the third quarter to extend its lead to 24-9. Ekeler shed attempted tackles by Darius Leonard and Pierre Desir before motoring up the right sideline.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised with the plays he made today,” Rivers said. “It’s not too big for him. We ran that play we scored on at least seven times.”
Indianapolis responded with 15 straight points to force overtime. Marlon Mack, who had 25 carries for 174 yards, brought the Colts within 24-16 with a career-long 63-yard scamper up the left sideline midway through the third quarter.
They tied it with 48 seconds remaining when Jacoby Brissett hit T.Y. Hilton for their second scoring connection of the day. Hilton caught the ball at the Chargers 19, made Adrian Phillips miss and then extended the ball over the pylon before going out of bounds. The Colts tied it when Mack ran it in on the 2-point conversion.
The tying drive was set up when Malik Hooker made a great one-handed interception in the end zone on Rivers’ pass intended for Keenan Allen. Hooker returned the pass to the Colts 20.
“It was a tough loss. You go on the road against a team that was 12-4 last year, a very good football team with an elite quarterback, and they made the plays they needed to make to win,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “They deserved to win. It’s hard to say, but they deserved to win.”
Brissett, now the Colts’ starter with a lucrative contract after Andrew Luck retired last month, had a solid game, going 21 of 27 for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Hilton caught eight passes for 87 yards and both TDs.
“You experience every emotion. It was a tough way to end it,” Brissett said. “It’s a lot of things to build on. Just the resiliency of our group to come out and finish that drive at the end, and to convert on a 2-point conversion, I thought we did a heck of a job up front today. I know for sure that won’t be unnoticed.”
Chargers at Lions
Kickoff: 1 Sunday, Ford Field
Records: Chargers 1-0, Lions 0-0-1
Line: Chargers by 3½