As the pass from Titans quarterback Jake Locker was headed toward a streaking Justin Hunter, he knew the game was on the line. The Titans were trailing 17-13, out of time outs and almost out of time.
“I just attacked the ball. When I caught it, I had to hold on tight like it was a baby,'' Hunter said, after using his speed and jumping ability to make the 34-yard game-winning pass with 15 ticks left on the clock.
For the former Tennessee star, it was a day of firsts.
It was Hunter's first NFL catch. It was his first NFL touchdown. It was his first time to make a difference for the team that drafted him for all his athletic attributes he has been blessed with.
On a team that has a number of wide receivers, Hunter has had to work hard just to be active on game day. He played his first game two weeks ago in Houston, but did not factor in the game. Sunday's game winner should propel Hunter up the depth chart from here on.
“He's improved a lot. He gets better every day,'' Titans second year wide receiver Kendall Wright said of Hunter. “He knows when coaches get on him a lot that they're only trying to make him better. Justin takes the most reps in practice, whether it's on our offense or on the scout team. It paid off.''
On one hand, Jake Locker and the Titans coaches would not have called Hunter's number on the do-or-die touchdown play. He was unproven, still raw in his route running. But on the other hand, Locker had to love his chances of throwing to a 6-foot-4 target with a 78-inch wingspan that was nationally ranked in the triple jump and high jump.
Locker was right. Hunter climbed the ladder over Chargers cornerback Crezdon Butler, sending the home crowd away a winner.
“I just have to go up and make that play,'' Butler said.
As for Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, he had no hesitation in dialing up the play for Hunter.
“We have a lot of faith in Justin. He's going to be an extremely special player,'' Loggains said. “We had to have it and Jake wanted him in there. It didn't matter who was covering Justin.
“(Jake) has a lot of confidence in Justin. Jake knew his best matchup was Justin's size and speed.
Loggains has sensed this was coming three weeks ago. He knows that in a rookie's life, the light has to come on at some point. Hunter's came on Sunday.
“The biggest jump has been the last three weeks. He has really stepped up in practice and come into his own. He's starting to believe it. Young guys have to have success. Once they have success, the quarterback's confidence goes up in him. It didn't matter who was on the field, Jake was throwing the ball to him. He trusts him that much.''
When the outcome appeared to be bleak, the game-winning two-minute drill orchestrated by Locker should go a long way toward making believers around the NFL, at LP Stadium and in the Titans locker room.
After all, the last time the franchise beat San Diego was in 1997 when they were the Houston Oilers. Sunday's win snapped a nine game losing streak to the Chargers.
It should also boost Locker's confidence in his ability to lead this team as the expectations were when he was a first round draft pick three years ago.
“I think it just gives our whole team confidence when you can take the ball 94 yards with no timeouts and 1:50. That's the stuff at times last year we didn't get done,'' Titans Coach Mike Munchak said after his team improved to 2-1 and sent the Chargers home with a 1-2 record.
Hunter knows he still has a lot to learn. After he showered and dressed, he left the locker room and followed some media to the press box elevator. Someone had to tell him he was going the wrong way and instructed him how to get to the players' parking lot exit.
You can't expect a rookie to know everything.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.