The largest crowd in United Football League history turned out in Omaha last night to celebrate the city’s first professional football team. It left Rosenblatt Stadium having been witness to one of the most spectacular games in the brief history of the UFL.
Omaha quarterback Jeff Garcia threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Robert Ferguson on fourth down with six seconds to play, giving the Nighthawks a 24-23 win over the Hartford Colonials in the franchise’s pulse-pounding debut.
The sellout crowd of more than 23 thousand watched the Nighthawks fall behind 23-10 before outscoring Hartford 17-3 in the fourth quarter behind the clutch play of Garcia, Omaha’s 40-year-old quarterback who was seeing his first live action in nearly two years.
The win capped a whirlwind week for Garcia, who missed practice Tuesday to travel to California, where his wife Carmella gave birth to the couple’s son Jax. He finished 23-of-39 passing for 226 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair of fourth quarter scores to rally the Nighthawks.
It was a bitter defeat for Hartford, which got a sterling performance from quarterback Josh McCown, who completed 22 of 25 passes for 264 yards and two scores. But Hartford lost three fumbles, committed seven penalties for 63 yards, and saw kicker Taylor Mehlhaff miss a critical extra point.
Hartford had numerous chances to spoil the Nighthawks’ coming-out party, but always seemed to come up just short. A pair of costly personal foul penalties extended an Omaha drive that culminated in Garcia’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Devard Darling that pulled the Nighthawks to within 23-20 with 8:05 to play.
The Colonials were still in good position, eating up more than five minutes on what appeared would be a game-clinching drive. Facing 3rd-and-9 from the Omaha 15, Hartford receiver Josh Cherry looked to have clear sailing to a first down on a reverse, but Nighthawks corner back Aaron Rouse raced in to make the stop a yard shy of the first down.
Hartford settled for a 25-yard field goal from Mehlhaff to lead 26-20 with 2:43 remaining.
After Ricardo Colclough returned the ensuing kickoff 35 yards to the Omaha 41-yard line, Garcia went to work on the game-winning drive.
He connected with Ferguson for 12 yards and Roy Hall for 11 yards on either side of a 14-yard scramble to set up first down at the Hartford 18 with 38 seconds remaining. With the clock running after a short completion to Darling, Garcia narrowly avoided disaster on the next play when Hartford linebacker Frantz Joseph dropped an interception that would have essentially ended the game.
Instead it brought up a 4th-and-4, and Garcia made it count. After scrambling to his left, he found Ferguson, who out-battled a defensive back in the back corner of the end zone to tie the game 26-26 before former Mizzou Tiger Jeff Wolfert’s PAT made Omaha a winner.
The comeback spoiled the second straight spectacular outing for McCown, the UFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Week who didn’t throw his second incomplete pass until midway through the third quarter.
McCown had the Hartford offense sharp from the start. He cooly took the Colonials 82 yards in 10 plays to open the game, connecting with Tyson Devree on a 14-yard touchdown pass to put the Colonials up 7-0 with 9:51 to play in the first quarter.
But the Nighthawks answered on their first possession in franchise history. A Hartford personal foul penalty let Omaha begin its drive at its own 46-yard line. The Nighthawks only needed five plays for its first-ever touchdown, coming when Garcia hit fullback Rendrick Taylor on a bootleg pass from 10 yards out to even the score 7-7.
Hartford went up 14-7 on backup quarterback Ryan Perrilloux’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Taurus Johnson early in the second quarter. Then, after Wolfert’s 26-yard field goal cut the Colonials’ lead to 14-10, McCown hit three straight passes in Hartford’s hurry-up offense. The last was a perfect 35-yard touchdown strike to Patrick Carter on the final play of the first half, but Mehlhaff pulled the PAT wide right, the first extra-point miss in UFL history.
Omaha’s Ahman Green ran 12 times for 49 yards in front of his hometown fans, many of whom arrived at the stadium as much as four hours early to celebrate the first football team to call Omaha home.