SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake wide receiver DeMornay Pierson-El ran to the back of the end zone while swinging his arm in a wide circle.
He had just made history by scoring the first home touchdown in Salt Lake Stallions history and was going to make sure he celebrated accordingly.
How long will that history be? As of now, that’s anyone’s guess.
With rumors of financial trouble, relatively poor attendance and another spring football league set to debut next year, the Alliance of American Football faces some challenges as it tries to cement itself in the sporting landscape.
But all the questions of the sustainability of the league weren’t what was on the minds of the few thousand fans who braved the chilly February air on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. They just wanted to take advantage of some February football. And the Stallions gave them something to cheer about.
Josh Woodrum threw for 178 yards and a touchdown to lead Salt Lake to a 23-15 win over the Arizona Hotshots for the team’s first victory in franchise history.
“We made plays when we had to,” Woodrum said.
With 8:25 left in the game, the Stallions were holding tight to a 3-point lead and looked like they had just been stuffed on a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. The Hotshots celebrated the goal-line stand, but that celebration was short lived. The Stallions challenged the ruling and it was determined that Joel Bouagnon had got the ball across the plane. Touchdown Salt Lake.
“It looked like a great goal-line stand and we were one score away,” Arizona coach Rick Neuheisel said. “Next thing you know, they are high-fiving each other.”
That ruling helped Salt Lake hold on for the win.
Arizona was able to get another late touchdown and then went for the AAF’s version of an onside attempt — the team gets the ball with one down to get 12 yards. Arizona QB Trevor Knight got the ball to Josh Huff, but Salt Lake’s Greer Martini was able to make the game-winning tackle short of the line to gain.
And that was just one of the many plays Martini made in Salt Lake’s home opener.
On the first play of the second half, Martini intercepted an Arizona pass and ran it back to inside the 10-yard line which led to a short touchdown run by Branden Oliver. That touchdown gave the Stallions a 15-9 lead — a lead they would never surrender.
The Stallions credited a modest but vocal crowd as part of the reason they were able to avenge a Week 1 loss to the Hotshots.
"Everyone said that Salt Lake was going to be excited to have a team,” Woodrum said. “It was great to have a big fan base out there. They were loud on third down and I think it gave them some problems.”
Arizona was just 1-for-10 on third-down conversions. Former Utah standouts Gionni Paul and Trevor Reilly helped lead that strong defensive showing with Reilly finishing with eight tackles and Paul adding seven.
Former Utah receiver Kaelin Clay had five receptions for 27 yards.
“It was a big thing for all those guys,” Salt Lake head coach Dennis Erickson said.
And when it comes to building the AAF, Erickson said local talent is key. It’s why the Stallions honored former college standouts like Andy Phillips, Tom Hackett, Jason Buck and Reno Mahe, among others at halftime.
Erickson said by building a connection with the local schools, it will help bring people in to watch games. And he’s confident that once they see the product on the field, those fans will keep coming back.
"This town is a great football town,” Erickson said. “Once we get this thing going, we’ll start getting a lot of fans out here.”
The Stallions announced an official attendance of 10,641. In reality, it was closer to half of that, but it was still a lively group that even featured some fans in BYU shirts doing The Muss’s famed third-down jump (not many else were joining in on that).
“I don’t know how many people were here today,” Neuheisel said. “But if you ask them all, did you have a good time? I’m pretty sure they’re all going to say (yes). Their home team won and it was a very competitive game. It went down to the final snaps. If you look at the quality of guys playing and it’s intriguing. … I think it has a great future.”