Indianapolis is known as the “Racing Capital of the World,” and the Indianapolis 500 is often called the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Granted, it is November and nearly six months after the Memorial Day weekend when the 500 is run. Also, Lucas Oil Stadium will never be confused with the famed Brickyard, otherwise known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Rams, led by the No. 11 car – aka Tavon Austin – were off to the races last Sunday and lapped the Colts by the never-before NFL score of 38-8. It was an amazing game that sent me scurrying to research the multitude of stats and records that helped explain the magnitude of the victory.
When referee Terry McAulay went to midfield for the opening coin toss, he asked the Rams’ captains to call “heads or tails.” He might as well have started with the traditional Indy 500 “Gentlemen, start your engines” based on what was to transpire. Interestingly, the Rams won the toss and elected to defer. This gave Andrew Luck and the Colts the first opportunity to move the ball. Perhaps this was inspired genius since Luck has been known for his fourth-quarter comebacks and not his early-game play. Additionally, St. Louis entered the contest with no points on any of its nine opening drives anyway. So, what is the best way to solve the problem of the opening drive? How about scoring before the opening drive ever happens?
That is exactly what happened, although you would never have seen it coming after a taunting penalty on the opening kickoff touchback and an early offsides call (the first of five on the day) that gave the Colts a first down near midfield. Faced with a 3rd-and-13 play at the Rams’ 42-yard line, it was Luck who didn’t see what was coming. That was Robert Quinn who sacked the Colts’ signal-caller and forced a fumble that was recovered by Chris Long and returned 45 yards for the touchdown. Going into the game, Indy averaged barely five negative yardage plays per game. Three minutes in, they had two plays that lost yardage and two that gained no yards.
The score stayed 7-0 through the end of the first quarter, as the Rams’ defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs – more than they had forced in five entire games this season. The Rams also had their first red-zone turnover while marching toward a possible second score. Then along came the second quarter.
On the first play of the quarter, Kellen Clemens found Chris Givens for 35 yards on a third-down play to set up a Zac Stacy one-yard touchdown run. After going nearly 10 full games without a rushing touchdown, the Rams now had three by Stacy in just over 55 minutes of playing time. The Colts, now down by 14 points, all but abandoned the run and went with 10 consecutive passes on the ensuing drive. The last three fell incomplete, and Pat McAfee was called upon to punt. This was when the Tavon Austin Experience started in earnest with the dazzling 98-yard punt return.
Austin’s return is tied for the third-longest in NFL history, and it is second on the Rams’ list behind Robert Bailey’s NFL-record 103-yard return in 1994 against the Saints. In that game, the Rams also had a 98-yard fumble return by Toby Wright for a touchdown. That was the last time the Rams had two 98-plus-yard plays in one season – until this year, when Austin joined Alec Ogletree (98-yard interception return). The only other time the Rams have had two 98-plus-yard plays in one year was 1980, when Drew Hill and Johnnie Johnson both went for that distance.
After another Colts three-and-out, the Rams sandwiched three Stacy runs around an incompletion to set up another third-down play, this time from the St. Louis 43-yard line. Austin roared down the left sideline straightaway, leaving defenders in the rearview mirror as Clemens connected for a career-long 57-yard strike. Austin had his second touchdown, totaling 155 yards in 3 ½ minutes, and the Rams had 21 points in 7:32. This was the second 20-point quarter of the season, but the first to occur in the second quarter in 10 years. (The Rams put up 20 on the Lions in the 2003 season finale.) The Rams went to the locker room at halftime up 28-0, the largest lead at intermission in 14 years.
The second half started innocently enough when Austin returned the kickoff from nine yards deep in the end zone for 27 yards to the St. Louis 18, the team’s worst starting field position to that point. An incompletion and a Stacy one-yard gain led to the third-down play that all but settled the outcome. Clemens was under pressure, but found Austin, who shifted into high gear and took it 81 yards to the finish line for the longest Rams passing touchdown in eight years and Clemens’ longest career pass play in eight minutes. Austin’s two touches on the drive took him from a yard from the back of his own end zone to the goal line some 109 yards away. The Rams had their fourth second-half opening-drive touchdown in five games, and Austin had turned the stadium turf into his own version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Rams’ drafting was getting good results on this track, too.
Three touchdowns covering 236 yards in 11:33 of playing time. Let’s put those numbers into historical perspective. No player in NFL history has had three touchdowns in one game total that many yards. The next closest was the Rams’ Ron Brown, who had 223 yards of touchdowns (98- and 86-yard kickoff returns and a 39-yard reception) against Green Bay in 1985. Next on the list appears to be Chris Johnson, who had 57- and 91-yard runs and a 69-yard reception for a total of 217 yards for coach Jeff Fisher and the Titans against Houston in 2009. The Rams’ head coach is the only coach to have two of his players tally over 200 yards of touchdowns in a game. Fisher can add this to his resume, as he is also the only coach to be on the sidelines when two of his players reached the 10,000-yard mark in career rushing (Eddie George and Steven Jackson) and kicked 60-yard field goals (Rob Bironas and Greg Zuerlein).
Only one player has ever gained more yards on touchdowns in a game than Austin. Hall of Famer Gale Sayers had six touchdowns in a 1965 game that came to a total of 244 yards. However, his three longest scores were on a run, a reception and a punt return good for 215 yards that would place him fourth on the list for most yards on three touchdowns.
Furthermore, only three other Rams have ever had a pair of 80-yard touchdowns in one game. Both Torry Holt and Az Hakim pulled off the daily double in 2000, and Ron Brown had two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 1985. Austin becomes the first Rams player with three touchdowns in a game since Jackson had three running scores against Dallas in 2008. The last time the Rams had three touchdowns of at least 50 yards and four touchdowns of at least 40 yards was the first game I ever worked with the Rams Radio Network in Atlanta back in September of 2000. That day, Kurt Warner found Holt for 80- and 85-yard scores and Isaac Bruce for a 66-yard touchdown, while Keith Lyle returned a fumble 94 yards for six points. Austin also is the third Rams player to ever have 300 all-purpose yards, with his 314 yards passing Jim Benton’s 303 yards against the Lions in 1945. Only Flipper Anderson’s 336 yards on plays from scrimmage and returns against the Saints in 1989 surpass Austin’s totals.
To say that Austin was the only star of the game would be unfair to the rest of the team. After the opening kickoff, the Rams’ special teams on kickoffs forced the Colts to start six drives at the 13-yard line on average. After committing 17 special teams penalties out of a total of 33 penalties in the first five games, the Rams have only been called for three special teams infractions in the last five games. The Rams offense was called for only one penalty against the Colts, and that was a delay-of-game call late in the fourth quarter.
The Rams ran the ball on 21 of their 24 first-down plays, a marked contrast to early in the season. Without Benny Cunningham’s 56-yard run on first down in the fourth quarter, the team would have only averaged 2.8 yards on first down. Third down was a very different story, as the Rams started off 7 for 10, accounting for seven of the Rams’ 10 first downs and a whopping 233 yards at that point. For the game, the Rams on third down came up with more than 60 percent of their offense. By contrast, the Colts were successful on only one of eight third-down plays in the opening 30 minutes and lost a total of 13 yards on those plays.
The Rams’ defense was stifling when it came to stopping the run, as Luck had four carries for 17 yards – including a Colts best of seven yards – while the other ball carriers had 10 rushes for only one yard. Indy had no rushing first downs on the afternoon, and that was the first time since a 1979 game against Seattle that a Rams defense had prevented a rushing first down for an entire game. Let’s not forget the three forced red-zone turnovers by the defense, as well as a stop on downs at the goal line. That is all the more remarkable because the Colts had scored on all 25 of their red-zone possessions going into the game. Indy also entered the game with only six turnovers in eight games, but that total increased by 83 percent, or five turnovers, courtesy of that Rams defense. As a result, the Rams nemesis, Adam Vinatieri, had no chance to torment the team. He never made an appearance in the game, and his 154 regular-season game scoring streak dating back to Sept. 7, 2003, was halted.
When the checkered flag came out on this “Colt-astrophe” for the Indy faithful, the Rams had their largest margin of victory since a 48-17 triumph over the Vikings in St. Louis some 10 years ago. This was also the biggest margin of victory on the road since a 35-0 rout of the Lions in 2001. After running circles around the Colts, the Rams now have a bye week to recharge the batteries before heading into the backstretch of the season that includes three home games against non-division opponents and three road games against their NFC West brethren.