Some jogged into the locker room winners, others walked, looking like they just wanted to soak it in for a little while longer. Some stopped to high-five and hug some of the home fans they just introduced themselves to, others threw gloves they wore during the game to those still cheering them on. They had to show some love to those who braved a chilly, albeit sunny February afternoon.
They also gave them reasons to come back, they believe.
In their inaugural home game in this inaugural season of existence, the Salt Lake Stallions rode the energy of being on the road the first two weeks of the season, of training all those weeks in San Antonio and just waiting for a shot to run out of the tunnel inside Rice-Eccles Stadium and be welcomed. They rode the anticipation of Saturday’s moment all the way to a win. The Stallions topped the Arizona Hotshots 23-15, winning their first game in the Alliance of American Football, improving to 1-2 for the season.
“Going 0-3 was not even in the question,” said Stallions quarterback Josh Woodrum.
Because beyond the final score, the Stallions know that if it is going to prove itself to a fan base it desperately needs, it has to showcase a product worth watching, worth paying for, worth, let’s face it, freeze over at times. Saturday’s home-opener drew an announced crowd of 10,412 — the actual in-house count looked less than that — so winning sure didn’t hurt.
“Shoot,” Stallions head coach Dennis Erickson said, “it was a beautiful day today. It was colder in Birmingham last week. I hope it’s cold next week when Orlando comes [to town]. I hope it snows.”
STALLIONS 23, HOTSHOTS 15
• Stallions win first-ever AAF game in their home opener
• QB Josh Woodrum went 22-of-31 for 178 yards and one touchdown
• Many former in-state players were out due to injury including Jordan Leslie, Micah Hannemann and Matt Asiata
It was a 15-play, 75-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter that eventually propelled the Stallions into the win column. It was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Joel Bouagnon on a 4th-and-1 attempt that was originally ruled short, but after a video review, was overturned. As many fans are finding out, there are no extra-point attempts in this league, only 2-point conversion attempts. Salt Lake converted as Woodrum found wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El to put the Stallions up 23-12 with 7:34 left in the fourth.
Arizona eventually kicked a field goal to pull within one score, 23-15, but since there are no onside kicks in the AAF, the Hotshots elected to take the ball on a 4th-and-10 scenario from their own 28-yard line with 24 seconds remaining. They did not get a first down. They came up short.
“Obviously we played great defense,” Erickson said. “We have every time we played.”
The turning point of the game, as Arizona coach Rick Neuheisel explained, came on the first play of the second half as Salt Lake middle linebacker Greer Martini intercepted a pass attempt and returned it to the Arizona 7-yard line. Stallions running back Branden Oliver eventually punched it in from 1-yard out.
The new team in town looks sort of like the other home team inside Rice-Eccles Stadium: headlined by a tenacious defense, the Stallions feel like they have a shot in any game from here on out. And Erickson reiterated that he believes this team can stick, and this league can be what it aims to become.
“Let’s face it: they’re trying to make it. They’re trying to make it to the show,” he said. “They know that every time the ball is snapped that they’re being judged. Every NFL team, every team around will get these games and that’s why this league is here.”
Salt Lake will be back here next Saturday against Orlando. And there will be no plane rides around the country, no training days in Texas. The Stallions are home.
“It’s a bumpy ride,” Woodrum said, “but it’s starting to smooth out a little bit for us.”