The Utah Blaze practice onside kicks relentlessly for the exact situation they found themselves in on Friday night. Up 63-62 with only 52 seconds left, the special teams needed someone to step up and recover.
It turned out to be the most unlikely candidate who won the game — backup quarterback Carson Coffman, who was on the field only because of decimating injuries.
“They were supposed to kick away from me so I wouldn’t have to be too involved,” Coffman said. “But the ball kept bouncing toward me so I jumped on it. Ernie [Pierce] started shaking me and said ‘You won the game, man!’”
Three clock-eating runs later, the Blaze (4-2) had claimed the one-point victory over the visiting Iowa Barnstormers (3-3) in front of a crowd of 7,319 at EnergySolutions Arena. A second-half surge on the offensive end helped Utah maintain a slim advantage, as quarterback Tommy Grady led with eight touchdown passes, four to wideout Aaron Lesue.
Still, some early mistakes meant Utah needed a break. And special teams were there to deliver.
“We probably practice one-minute drills more than any other team in the league, and we have a lot of confidence when it comes to those situations,” coach Ron James said. “It was just about playing smart. We were clearly the better team, we just couldn’t give them opportunities.”
Coffman’s onside kick recovery was one of two game-changing special teams moments: In the first half, David Hyland recovered an odd-bouncing kickoff to give Utah a 35-28 lead. The Blaze sorely needed the extra points after ending two first-quarter offensive possessions with turnovers on downs.
But the scoring picked up in the second half, as Grady worked efficiently with strong pocket protection. Utah’s passer had his second straight strong outing, going 27-for-39 for 285 yards and eight scores. His touch pass to Ernie Pierce with 52 seconds left gave Utah the lead for good, and he had two rushes at the end to run out the clock.
His top target was Lesue, who continued to lead the league in scoring with 166 yards and four touchdowns. The short-statured receiver had the other highlight of the night: a tumble over the wall resulting in a second-half touchdown catch.
“It was fourth down, and we needed to score on that possession,” he said. “You know it’s going to hurt, but you know it’ll hurt less if you get the catch.”
Lesue also played fill-in defensive back along with kick returner Chris Bocage as the Blaze secondary was riddled with injuries. It was a much different outing than an early season matchup between the two, when Utah set an AFL record with 10 sacks.
Receivers Chris Matthews and Jesse Schmidt burned Utah’s defense — especially on fourth down, when the Barnstormers were 4-for-4. But James said he respected the effort from a group of subs who filled in for the dangerous thin defensive back unit.
Utah 63, Iowa 62
R Blaze backup QB Carson Coffman recovers an onside kick in the final minute to seal it.
• QB Tommy Grady leads Utah’s offense with eight touchdown passes.
• Utah WR Aaron Lesue has 4 TDs and 166 yards.