The bloody gash on his right elbow that required a few stitches to close on Sunday will heal in short time. Austin Ekeler’s bigger challenge might be soothing an ego bruised by a late-game fumble that spoiled his most productive and promising day in the NFL.
“It wasn’t my best ball security, obviously,” the Chargers rookie running back said after losing a fumble with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter of an eventual 20-17 overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field.
“I should have gotten two hands on the ball. It was a running situation. They knew we were gonna run the ball. We knew we were gonna run the ball. So that should have been my first priority, ball security.”
Until that point, it was an afternoon of tiptoeing down the sideline and air-guitar celebrations in the end zone for Ekeler, who turned a pair of short passes from Philip Rivers into a 28-yard touchdown play in the second quarter and a 22-yard touchdown in the third.
Ekeler, the undrafted free agent from Western State in Colorado, outshined starter Melvin Gordon, the 2015 first-round pick out of Wisconsin, by catching five passes for 77 yards and rushing 10 times for 42 yards. Gordon rushed 16 times for 27 yards and caught five passes for 15 yards.
And when free safety Tre Boston hauled in a pass that cornerback Casey Hayward tipped for an interception with 1:51 left and the Chargers clinging to a 17-14 lead, it was the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ekeler, not Gordon, who was sent into the game.
“Austin was running well, he was hitting holes a little quicker,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “And, we’re trying to finish the game on the field.”
On first down from the 37-yard line, Ekeler took a handoff and headed toward the left side, diving into a pile of defenders. Jaguars lineman Malik Jackson drove his helmet forcefully into the ball, which popped loose. Jacksonville safety Tashaun Gipson scooped the ball and ran 35 yards for a touchdown but was ruled down by contact after a replay review. The turnover did not cost the Chargers on the scoreboard because Boston picked off Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles again with 1:24 left.
But had Ekeler not fumbled, the Chargers would have forced Jacksonville to use its timeouts earlier, more clock would have expired and field position to punt would have improved.
“The young man, he coughed it up,” Lynn said. “I told him it’s a tough lesson right now. It hurts like hell. I know you didn’t want to put it on the ground, but in this situation, you have to really protect the football, because the defense is going after it. It just can’t happen.
“I’m sure he’s beating himself up over it, but he made some great plays today, too. He was one of the reasons we were in the game. He’s just going to have to learn from it and keep going.”
Ekeler’s first big play came just before halftime when, from the Jaguars’ 28, he caught a short pass from Rivers, shed would-be tackler Telvin Smith at the 20 along the right sideline and somehow managed to stay inbounds on the way to the end zone and a 7-6 Chargers lead.
“I knew it was close coming around the corner,” Ekeler said. “I ended up tight-roping it in.”
Early in the third quarter from the Jacksonville 22, Ekeler caught a pass in the right flat, found an opening down the right sideline and dived to the pylon for a touchdown and a 14-6 lead.
According to NFL Research, Ekeler became the first NFL running back with two touchdown catches of 20-plus yards since Jamaal Charles in 2013.
“Those catches and runs were huge plays, he got us into the end zone twice,” Rivers said. “I know he’ll tell you he wants the fumble back, but nobody wants to fumble. Nobody wants to throw an interception, to miss a tackle, but none of us are looking for sympathy, either. We know it’s our job to make those plays, but Ekeler, shoot, he was a big reason we were in the position we were in.”
Several veterans consoled Ekeler on the sideline and in the locker room afterward. Ekeler did not play another snap after his fumble. Gordon played on the Chargers’ final possession in regulation and in overtime. Ekeler was not about to complain.
“For them not to put me back in there, I understood,” Ekeler said. “We’ve got Melvin Gordon. He’s one of the best in the league right now. They put Mel out there. I was like, ‘OK.’ I was still ready to go if they called my name and number.
“It was good to hear from guys who told me to keep my head up, because they know how I am. I want to win just as much as all these guys. That’s why I’m here, to help win. A fumble at a crucial time in the game, I take it to heart.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna