Brian Westerholt / Associated Press
Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020 | 11:35 p.m.
The Las Vegas Raiders may need to get into touch with Wilson Sporting Goods and order a new crate of game balls for rush delivery after their season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s excitement immediately following his team’s 34-30 victory Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium had him promising to hand off a hefty portion of the 780 game balls the team is allotted for the year. It’s the best way he could think to celebrate and share the first win in Las Vegas Raiders’ history.
“It’s a historic win for me, it’s a historic win for all our players and our entire organization,” Gruden yelled in his postgame news conference. “Everyone got game balls and I’m going to see if I can get hundreds of game balls to pass out to some of our season ticket holders. We’d love to be going back to our stadium and debuting Monday night with everyone, but it means a lot. We’re all emotional about it. We wanted to get a win for them.”
The Raiders didn’t make it easy on themselves but ultimately prevailed behind an extravagant offense that looks like it will fit perfectly in their new home of Allegiant Stadium across from the Strip. Second-year running back Josh Jacobs was its week 1 headliner, as he tied the single-game franchise record with a career-high three rushing touchdowns off of 93 yards on the ground in addition to four receptions for 46 yards.
Jacobs’ final trot into the end zone, off of a six-yard handoff with four minutes left in regulation, was the game-winner. It capped a 75-yard Raiders’ drive directed by quarterback Derek Carr, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown on the day, that was made necessary after the team blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead.
“My mindset was we were equipped to accomplish what we needed to accomplish,” Carr said. “I’m proud of our guys that we did it, for coming back and winning that game. I’m so happy for our fans, everyone who has struggled through COVID, lost their jobs and just wanted to see the Raiders win.”
The reminders of the unprecedented circumstances that the game was being played under because of the global pandemic were ubiquitous throughout.
A Lil Wayne song blaring out of the speakers two hours before kickoff as Carr went through his warm-up routine could be heard from at least four blocks away. The noise and one dogged entrepreneur's lonely merchandise rack with Panthers’ hats and shirts were the only signs of an NFL game taking place in downtown Charlotte during the pregame.
The scene was just as barren inside the 75,000-seat venue as the lone thing that ever blocked the constant glare of the sun off the lower-bowl Panther blue-colored seats was the occasional photographer, security guard or mascot cutting through the sections. The Raiders thought they were ready for games without fans, but quickly learned otherwise.
Gruden described it as odd to be able to hear everything his assistant coaches were screaming on the sideline, and a number of players noted that they didn’t have “the juice” early.
“Just getting the jitters out, it was very different playing without fans,” safety Johnathan Abram said. “Trying to get adjusted to that, we came out very slow.”
The Raiders’ offense went 3-and-out on its first appearance and the defense started even worse, allowing the Panthers to score on each of their first four possessions. Las Vegas was able to hold Carolina to field goals on three of those four scoring drives — a Christian McCaffrey a six-yard touchdown run being the exception — and that ended up being a saving grace.
Carr and Jacobs were able to shake off the slow start quickly and spurred two first-half touchdowns, giving the Raiders a 17-12 halftime lead.
Jacobs scored the first touchdown in Las Vegas Raider history as he pounded in from one yard after rookie receiver Henry Ruggs III took a 45-yard reception to the goal line. Ruggs’ deep catch is in competition with the second touchdown for the Raiders’ top offensive highlight of the day.
Right out of the two-minute warning before halftime, Carr lofted a perfect pass into the corner of the end zone that free-agent acquisition Nelson Agholor caught over his shoulder for a 23-yard score.
“He can air it out and we’ve got some guys that can go get it,” Gruden said.
The Raiders’ defense improved to start the second half after another newcomer, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, stuffed two straight plays near the line of scrimmage. The former Chicago Bear went to the locker room with a pectoral injury shortly afterwards, however, to add to a day where injuries piled up.
Starting cornerback Trayvon Mullen also missed time in the second half with an undisclosed injury before returning. Ruggs came down awkwardly on his knee on his final of three receptions, and though he also returned, he was less effective for the rest of the afternoon.
Right tackle Trent Brown played one series before a calf injury that had dogged him all training camp flared up, pressing veteran reserves Sam Young, who also ended up injured, and Denzelle Goode into expanded action.
“That was a championship effort by a lot of guys,” Gruden said.
“We’re going to have some growing pains at times but today was a great job by everybody finding a way to win.”
Those growing pains are largely going to come from relying on young and unproven players on defense, as became painfully apparent in the fourth quarter. Despite high hopes for two second-year edge rushers, Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, the Raiders couldn’t get any pressure, which allowed Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to routinely pick them apart with short passes.
Bridgewater, who finished with 270 yards and a touchdown on 22-for-34 passing, connected with McCaffrey for a pair of first downs near the start of the fourth quarter before the latter eventually rushed into the end zone from the 3-yard line for his second touchdown.
Once the Panthers got the ball back a couple minutes later, Raiders rookie cornerback Damon Arnette blew a coverage to allow receiver Robby Anderson to go 75 yards for a touchdown to put Carolina up 30-27 with eight minutes remaining.
Carr and Jacobs ignited for the game-winning drive to answer, though, and then the defense capitalized on their chance at a reprieve. On a fourth-and-1 play from the Raiders’ 46-yard line with just more than a minute to go, defensive tackle Maleik Collins got a strong push as Ferrell and Raekwon McMillan swarmed in to stuff fullback Alex Armah for no gain.
That all but sealed the victory — one with significance that wasn’t lost on Gruden.
“We can say whatever we want about the defense; they got the stop when we needed it,” he said. “Fourth-quarter defense, fourth-quarter pass rush is going to be a big part of winning in this league. I’m just really happy to get a win for the Las Vegas Raiders, first win in history of the Raider franchise in Vegas and hopefully our fans saw something they liked.”