SALT LAKE CITY — Football is never a sprint. It's always a marathon.
The Utah Blaze did everything possible to lose in the first half against New Orleans Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena. However, they methodically climbed back in the final two quarters and ultimately scored on the final play to claim the 62-58 win.
"Right now I'm proud of these guys. We're not a great team but we're gritty team, and we're a team that's finding a way to win with a lot of new players," Blaze coach Ron James said. "We love our home fans, and we wanted to send them out on a high note."
It was a crazy night on the final home game from the very first play.
Todd Hammel, a 44-year-old quarterback making his second appearance with Utah, was picked off for a touchdown. Luckily, an illegal defense negated the touchdown and Hammel bounced back with three consecutive completions leading to a 7-yard touchdown strike to Michael Preston.
Hammel finished 26-of-39 through the air with 316 yards and five touchdowns.
Later in the first quarter, tied at 7-7, Ben Stallings scored on a quick 5-yard sweep around the right side to set the single-season franchise record for the most rushing touchdowns despite being injured the majority of the season.
That's when things started to unravel for Utah (8-9). After stopping the Blaze on downs — the first of three on the night — New Orleans captured its first lead 17-14. The VooDoo (3-14) later expanded their cushion to 38-27 at halftime.
New Orleans continued to hold that lead until Utah's Chris Bocage delivered an electrifying play. Fielding the kickoff off the nets, the 5-foot-10 speedster blew past the coverage team and across the pylon to slice the lead 48-41.
"Chris' kickoff return was huge for us. Not only did we get points, (but) we didn't run any clock," said James. "If he didn't run that one back they would have been able to milk the clock down considerably and we might not have had time to make a comeback."
New Orleans scored on the following possession to boost the lead back to 14 points. Utah was on the move to retaliate, but Alvin Jackson picked off Hamel at the Blaze 20-yard line without a player in sight.
He mistakenly started to showboat like Deion Sanders, high-stepping and holding the ball out thinking he had a clear pathway for the score. However, Alvance Robinson chased him down and batted the ball out of his hand and recovered the fumble.
The play changed the momentum of the game allowing Utah to eventually even things up at 55 apiece in the fourth.
From that point New Orleans embarked on a 5-minute drive that culminated with Jonathan Ruffin's third field goal of the game to take the 58-55 lead with 34.7 seconds left.
Utah's ensuing drive moved deep into VooDoo territory on a questionable pass interference call on Roland Cola.
The following play Hamel maneuvered out of the pocked and threw a dart to Bocage in the back of the end zone.