Justin Hunter did what the Tennessee Titans drafted him to do on Sunday – at the most crucial time of the game.
Hunter went up and out-jumped Crezdon Butler and caught a 34-yard touchdown reception from Jake Locker with 15 seconds to play, propelling the Tennessee Titans to a 20-17 comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers in the home opener at LP Field.
The throw from Jake Locker capped a 94-yard march that began with 2:05 on the clock and no timeouts and gave the franchise its first win over the Chargers since 1992. It marked the only time in the game the Titans led, as they improved to 2-1 on the season.
“Attack it. That's what the coaches preach to us all the time when the ball was in the air,” said Hunter, a second-round draft pick who made his first NFL catch a big one.
Earlier in the game, a potential 50-yard touchdown throw to Hunter from Locker bounced off the rookie's hands, and fell incomplete in the end zone. So Hunter was happy to redeem himself at just the right time for Tennessee to pull off the comeback victory.
“We have a lot of faith in Justin. Justin is going to be an extremely special player,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “When we had to have it, that's a guy that Jake wanted in, that's a guy that we wanted in as a coaching staff. We knew we were gonna give him a jump ball, and there was an extreme mismatch no matter who was covering him. He was gonna go up above them and catch the ball.”
The winning score came on third-and-10 after Locker had overthrown a wide-open Damian Williams in the end zone on second down. On third-down, Locker saw the single coverage, and rather than throw something short to try and move for one more first down, he heaved the ball deep and Hunter came up a hero.
“One of the reasons we drafted him is we think he can be a special deep ball threat. He has a great combination of size and speed and he can jump. That was a perfect example of that situation,” Locker said of Hunter. “He was able to run down, track that football down and then when it comes to a jump ball, we feel confident he is going to come down with it 100 percent of the time, because that's his strength. That plays right into his abilities.”
Locker himself was solid Sunday, with a 299-yard effort on 23 of 37 passes and he one TD throw. Locker also ran for 68 yards and a score on five attempts.
The Titans at times were their own worst enemy Sunday with 10 first-half penalties for 110 yards and giving up a touchdown on the very first series of the game for the second week in a row.
Philip Rivers calmly marched the Chargers down the field after taking a punt at the Tennessee 49-yard line. Rivers found old Titans nemesis Antonio Gates three times on the drive, including a 7-yard touchdown pass for a quick 7-0 lead.
“The Chargers have a good offense. We had to have that bend-but-don't-break mentality as a defense,” linebacker Akeem Ayers said. “There are times when we're gonna dominate and there's times when teams are gonna get plays on us. When those times do happen, we have to recover and get off the field when we really need it.”
Tennessee finally got a drive going late in the first quarter as Locker's 39-yard scramble moved the ball to the Chargers' 42. The drive eventually stalled out at the 2, and Tennessee was forced to settle for Rob Bironas' 20-yard field goal.
After punter Brett Kern dropped a snap that the Chargers recovered at the Titans' 30, San Diego got a Nick Novak 44-yard field goal to go up 10-3.
The Chargers could have had much more from that drive, but an offensive pass interference on Keenan Allen wiped out a touchdown toss to Eddie Royal, and Rivers got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushed the ball all the way from the 5 back to the 30 for first-and-goal.
Tennessee rallied to tie the game, going 76 yards on eight plays with Locker finishing the drive with a 7-yard run on a quarterback draw.
The game remained tied, thanks to Bernard Pollard, who blocked Novak's 38-yard attempt just before the half ended.
In the second half, Tennessee missed out on a chance for the lead when Bironas missed a 43-yard kick wide right.
San Diego promptly drove down after the miss and regained the lead 17-10 on Ronnie Brown's 1-yard touchdown run.
The score stayed that way until Hunter and Locker's heroics at the end.
“I hope it leads to a lot of great things,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said of the 94-yard drive from Locker. “I think it just gives our whole team confidence when you can take the ball 94 yards with no timeouts in 1:50, and the defense getting a stop at four minutes and getting us the ball back.
“That's the stuff at times last year we didn't get done. Last week, we didn't get it done that way. We talk about phases, the situations. I thought it was fun to watch these guys battle through it. … We came away with the type of win we needed.”