Chargers running back Joshua Kelley tossed and turned until 2 a.m. because he was thinking of various scenarios of how his first NFL game would play out.
Half a day later, Kelley learned it was the nail-biting scenario with him scoring the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It would have been hard to win that game without Joshua today,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said after the Chargers’ 16-13 comeback win Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Chargers needed the nervous rookie to overcome a 13-6 fourth-quarter deficit. Kelley led the rally, and the Chargers escaped with a win after Bengals kicker Randy Bullock missed a 31-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation.
“I was just sitting there just hoping something would happen,” Kelley said about what went through his mind before Bullock’s missed field goal. “It’s crazy. My first game is a nail biter. I was just hoping for some type of block or some craziness. I was hugging my position coach (Mark Ridgley). Just happy.”
Kelley likely didn’t show it because he constantly has a smile on his face, but the UCLA product admitted he was nervous for his first game. But a few special teams plays got the jitters out before Kelley’s first career carry in the second quarter.
Kelley, a fourth-round draft pick, found his stride after a 26-yard run to start the second half. The Lancaster native finished with 12 carries for 60 yards and had a 5-yard touchdown run to tie the game 13-13 with 12:23 in the fourth quarter.
“His spirit, he’s always happy and that’s what brightens up our team,” defensive end Melvin Ingram said about Kelley’s positivity. “He’s been running the ball with no regrets.”
Lynn drafted Kelley to be his power running back and complement the athletic Austin Ekeler. Kelley struggled in short-yardage situations, but his vision and burst through holes gave the Chargers the boost they desperately needed.
“I gotta teach him in those circumstances when we’re in 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 exactly where I want that ball to go,” Lynn, a former running back, said about Kelley. “Other than that, I thought he created. I thought yards after contact was good.”
Kelley’s standout performance came with center Mike Pouncey and right guard Trai Turner sidelined with injuries.
The offensive line group of left tackle Sam Tevi, left guard Forrest Lamp, center Dan Feeney, right guard Tyree St. Louis and right tackle Bryan Bulaga created enough lanes for the Chargers to record 155 rushing yards. The Bengals managed 122 rushing yards, with Joe Mixon recording a team-high 69 yards on 19 carries.
Kelley started the day third on the running back depth chart behind Ekeler and Justin Jackson, but Lynn said he’d feed the hot hand on a weekly basis. That was Kelley for Week 1.
This is the third consecutive year Kelley opened the season against a team from Cincinnati. Kelley’s Bruins lost twice to the University of Cincinnati. He finally got the best of the city from Ohio.
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams came into the game with three weeks of uncertainty after injuring his right shoulder on Aug. 23.
Williams returned sooner than expected and was more than a decoy receiver.
The big wideout was quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s go-to downfield target. He was targeted nine times and grabbed four catches for 69 yards. Williams took multiple big shots, but quickly bounced back each time.
No. 1 wide receiver Keenan Allen had a quiet outing with four receptions for 37 yards. The Chargers’ rookie receivers Joe Reed and K.J. Hill didn’t see a target. No. 3 wideout Jalen Guyton had one catch for 16 yards.
Cornerback Casey Hayward had a strong performance with 12 tackles and two passes defended while covering Bengals star receiver A.J. Green.
Joey Bosa, Jerry Tillery and Uchenna Nwosu each recorded a sack. Rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray had eight combined tackles.
Linebacker Nick Vigil had five combined tackles and a fumble recovery after replacing Drue Tranquill, who was carted off in the first quarter with a left ankle injury.
Lynn didn’t provide an update on Tranquill after the game, but said he doesn’t expect Tranquill back anytime soon.