He who hesitates sometimes wins. Rookie Ira Matthews of the Oakland Raiders ended a personal debate over downing a kickoff in the end zone or taking a flyer by sprinting 104 yards for a third-quarter touchdown that broke the spirit of the San Diego Chargers tonight.
The Raiders (5-4) went on to capture the game they needed to stay within range of the first-place Chargers (6-3) in the AFC West, 45-22.
The Oakland victory overshadowed the performance of San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts, who became the first player in NFL history to throw for 300 yards or more in four consecutive games.Fouts completed 21 of 37 passes for 302 yards before leaving the game late in the fourth period with an aggravated groin injury. By the time James Harris replaced him Oakland was 23 points ahead.
"Records like that don't mean much," Fouts said after the game. "I'm really upset we lost the game and that's all that's on my mind now."
Until Matthews took off, however, the 53,709 fans who had delighted earlier in a 21-0 Oakland lead were splintering their trousers in worry while the scoreboard figures closed to 24-15.
The Chargers had all the momentum following a balmy onside kickoff and a subsequent 65-yard scoring drive. On that squib kick, which completely surprised the Raiders, booter Mike Wood hovered over a ball that died after only nine yards. The bait reeled in a sucker, Oakland's Reggie Kinshaw, who crashed into both Wood and ball, making it a freebie for anybody to capture. San Diego did, and capitalized on Fouts' one-yard sneak 10 plays later.
The next time Wood got all his foot in the ball and Mattews took it four yards deep in the end zone. He hesitated, dashed up the right sideline, slipped two tackles, cut sharply at the 50 and wound up in the left corner of the end zone.
"When I caught it, I sort of hesitated, and I came very close to downing it," Matthews said. "I was looking at (Larry) Brunson, who's supposed to tell me whether to come out or stay in. I saw his lips moving, but I couldn't hear him. He said later he wanted me to stay in.
"I probably should have, because I caught the ball backward and your're not supposed to do that on a kickoff. But I just made up may mind to bring it out."
Matthews, only 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, led the nation in both kickoff and punt returns during his college career at Wisconsin and is the only Badger ever to score by pass reception, scrimmage run, kickoff return and punt return in a single season.
"That kickoff return was the big play for us," said Oakland Coach Tom Flores. "It was a big effort on Ira's part and it might have broken their back. You're always edgy when the receiver starts and stops, starts and stops, but sometimes the recovery team lets up, too."
San Diego dug itself a deep hole early with some poor punts that enabled the Raiders to drive 41 and 40 yards for first-quarter touchdowns. After Oakland won the toss and chose to receive, the Chargers seemingly wound up kicking off against the wind, and the sorry punts, both of 31 yards, by Jeff West would indicate that was the case.
However, Fouts insisted that "the flags were blowing one way, but the wind on the field was going the other way."
Fouts, sacked twice and often roughed up as he released the ball, passed for two touchdowns.
Oakland quarterback Kenny Stabler completed his first nine passes while directing the Raiders to that 21-0 lead. It gave Stabler 15 straight successes over two games and he wound up with 13 to 17 for 212 yards.
Raider receivers were frequently unguarded as they ran away from the San Diego defense. Raymond Chester, the tight end who supposedly was a doubtful starter because of a knee strain, scored the first touchdown on a 34-yard play in which he caught a flat pass at the Charger 28 with so little pursuit that he was able to reach the end zone untouched.
"A lot of people were counting us out after we lost to the Jets Sunday," Flores said. "We had that long trip back and not much time to prepare, but we won anyway. It's a great victory for us."