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Chargers practiced this last-second trick play for years. But it ended in heartbreak

Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada, left, pounces on a lateral pass dropped by Chargers running back Austin Ekeler.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada, left, pounces on a lateral pass dropped by Chargers running back Austin Ekeler on the final play of the Chargers’ loss Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

They had practiced that play for two years, keeping the trick in their back pocket for just the right moment.

On Sunday against the Carolina Panthers that moment came, with Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler set to be heroes of the day with a simple flick of the ball.

“I thought it was there,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said.

But even if the moment and preparation were there, the execution wasn’t.

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With the ball on the Carolina 28 and six seconds on the clock, quarterback Justin Herbert shuffled left in the pocket, evaded the Panthers’ pass rush and threw to Allen.

The receiver caught the ball and pitched it back to Ekeler, who was trailing him. But Ekeler dropped the catchable lateral — albeit a little high and a tad bit behind him — and the busted play had cemented a 21-16 loss.

A strong defensive effort keeps the Chargers in contention, but turnovers and penalties ultimately doom them in a 21-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Allen jumped up and threw a fist in the air in frustration.

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“It happened a lot faster than it did in practice, obviously in a game-time situation,” Allen said. “Honestly, we just have to execute. I think it’s a walk-in touchdown. I could’ve put it more in front of him.”

But for Ekeler, the blame is on him too.

“I’ve been looking forward to running that play,” Ekeler said. “I love that play every time we run it in practice and then we come out and lay an egg when it should have worked.

“This conference would have been so much different, this little press conference, if I catch that ball. Man.”

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Herbert also targeted Allen on the penultimate play — a jump ball near the back of the end zone, but Allen’s former teammate Tre Boston, the Panthers’ safety, batted it away.

The loss diminished Allen’s otherwise strong performance: 13 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.

His 14-yard touchdown with nearly four minutes remaining made it 21-16, placing the Chargers in striking distance. On third down, Herbert stepped up in the pocket and launched the pass to Allen, who caught it above Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson for his first score of the season.

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“He’s definitely one of the best receivers in this game,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “He knows how to get open and for a young quarterback, I feel like that’s huge for him to have a receiver like that. We’re all trying to work for him, all trying to get open and make plays and Keenan does that on a consistent basis.”

A trio of Chargers joined a growing list of significant players who are dealing with injuries following Sunday’s loss to the Panthers.

Allen said the Panthers’ zone coverage created openings for Herbert to connect with him throughout the game. Herbert, who finished with 330 passing yards in his second career start, said getting the ball to Allen was part of the game plan.

“He’s an exceptional talent,” Herbert said. “Anytime you’ve got him on the field, it creates huge mismatches. Just getting him the ball, he makes special things happen.”

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Lynn said he was pleased with how the offense played, especially on the last drive. He blamed the loss on turnovers. There were four, the final one coming on the fumbled pitch play.

“Literally the only thing I dropped all day is a little pitch from Keenan Allen across the middle that would have ended up stealing the game,” Ekeler said. “So yeah, I feel like somebody punched me right in the face.“


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