Fantastic finish: Jaguars come back in fourth to stave off Colts in opener

Jacksonville surges back for 31-21 win in Indianapolis

Zay Jones of the Jacksonville Jaguars catches a touchdown against Darrell Baker Jr. #39 of the Indianapolis Colts in the first half of a game at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 10, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) (Andy Lyons, 2023 Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, F.a – It was a familiar formula for the Jaguars — a sluggish start and a fantastic finish.

The Jaguars did just enough to beat the Colts 31-21 for their first win there since 2017 on Sunday, a game that had a little bit of everything. It certainly wasn’t the overpowering start expected against a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback, but in the end, all that mattered was a win against a division opponent and a lot of things to work on before the Chiefs visit in a week. Jacksonville was sharp in limited sequences but looked more like the team that started 2022 than the one that finished it for most of the game.

But when Jacksonville needed it, the Jaguars found that finishing touch and slammed on the gas pedal to win their season opener for the first time since 2020. It took a field-flipping punt return from Jamal Agnew, a huge interception from Tyson Campbell and touchdown runs from Tank Bigsby and Travis Etienne just 62 seconds apart in the fourth quarter to escape the upset-minded Colts and rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson.

The finish was electric and familiar for Jacksonville. But will the sluggish start and inconsistency that plagued the Jaguars in the first half last year linger into their highly anticipated 2023 season? Doug Pederson spoke throughout the preseason on the need to get out of the gate quicker and Sunday didn’t produce that.

“We have to execute better. There were just too many mistakes, too many little things that flared up offensively that caused us to either stay on the field or keep the football, we can’t make the turnovers that we did,” Pederson said. “Things that we can control, we have to do a better job at doing. All of us have to be accountable, including myself there.”

Trevor Lawrence had a solid opener and flashed the potential of what’s to come. Receiver Calvin Ridley was excellent in his Jaguars debut. Indianapolis has been a difficult place to win at for as long as the Jaguars have been around. And even facing a rookie quarterback, it proved to be Sunday as well.

The Jaguars, projected by many to coast to another AFC South title, were ragged on offense and missed on numerous third- and fourth-down short yardage situations until it mattered.

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Tank Bigsby (4) scores on a 1-yard run as Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) watches during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The good

Ridley’s first NFL game in 686 days was an excellent one. Suspended for gambling the entire 2022 season, the Jaguars made a deadline deal with the Falcons to acquire Ridley. And he looked special against the Colts. Ridley had eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, the bulk of that coming before halftime.

“We knew we were a good team. We played a good defense. They played their butts off, but we know we have to get better. In those situations we should have scored more points; we should have been in better situations,” Ridley said. “That comes with — obviously that was our first game, but I feel like we’re still getting better, we’re still learning each other obviously. But I like where we’re at.”

Josh Allen is in a contract year, and that showed against Indianapolis. Allen had one of the best games of his career, sacking Richardson three times and blowing up two other plays for loss in the backfield.

Zay Jones was a big target for Lawrence, turning in a play-of-the-year candidate on an 18-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter where he went cross body for the grab while falling out of bounds. He was able to get a foot and an elbow inbounds for the catch. Jones also had a huge snag in the fourth quarter, cutting across the middle on a fourth-and-2 play that picked up a first. Bigsby scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later.

Lawrence finished 24 of 32 for 241 yards and two touchdowns.

“Obviously, it wasn’t a super clean game offensively,” Lawrence said. “There’s a lot of things to clean up but can’t be too upset with a win. It’s hard to win in this league and division game, too, so that’s big for us. Good start.”

The defense

While Lawrence, Bigsby, Etienne (77 yards, TD) and Jones (5 catches, 55 yards, TD) provided the points, the defense is what kept Jacksonville around to allow that to happen. Allen had a superb game. Outside of his three sacks, he had 10 tackles and three tackles for loss. Travon Walker had a sack, too. But the defense kept Richardson in check for the most part, holding Indianapolis to just 1 for 5 on fourth downs.

They stuffed Richardson twice on keepers in doing that. Darious Williams had a pass breakup at the 2-yard line on Indianapolis’ final drive, and Foye Oluokun swatted down Gardner Minshew’s fourth-down pass in the end zone to seal it. Richardson, the former Florida star, was 24 of 37 for 223 yards, a touchdown and a pick. He also rushed for 40 yards and a touchdown.

“If it was all about the offense, you know, we would have been in trouble today and same thing in different games, it was all about the defense,” Lawrence said, “So, we pick each other up. We feed off one another. That’s what makes teams great and we’ve got to continue to do that.”

Josh Allen of the Jacksonville Jaguars tackles Deon Jackson #35 of the Indianapolis Colts in the first half of a game at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 10, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) (2023 Getty Images)

Agnew’s big play

With the offense struggling mightily, Agnew provided a jolt. He fielded a punt at Jacksonville’s 6, took an angle to the right sideline and brought it to the Indianapolis 46. That play gave Jacksonville a plus field to work with and Lawrence did the bulk of the work before Bigsby finished it off with a touchdown.

“I think he got a great hop, a great bounce off the turf, but just he’s so smart,” Pederson said of Agnew’s game-changing return. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in him and obviously give him the freedom to make those decisions because he usually does the right thing. Great return, we had some great blocks there and really, really set us up there in good field position.”

Work to do

The offensive line. One of the lowest-ranked units in the league by Pro Football Focus last year, Jacksonville’s starting unit — Walker Little and Anton Harrison at tackles, Ben Bartch and Brandon Scherff at guards and Luke Fortner at center — did little to inspire confidence going forward. Lawrence was sacked twice and the ground game did little.

The Jaguars didn’t get the fast start they’d been hoping for, going three and out on their opening drive and largely struggling much of the half against the Colts. The lone promising drive came on Jacksonville’s second of the game, a 61-play march where Lawrence hit Ridley four times, including on a 9-yard touchdown pass where the quarterback stretched the play out with his legs. He found Ridley all alone in the end zone for his first score with the Jaguars.

Lukewarm start for Tank

Bigsby, the rookie running back from Auburn, had an excellent training camp but had mixed debut. The first pass in Bigsby’s direction went off his hands and led to a Tony Brown interception. After Lawrence fumbled on a hit by DeForest Buckner, Bigsby scooped it up and regained possession, only to fumble after a hit by Buckner.

The defensive lineman picked it up and went 26 yards for a touchdown and a 21-17 lead. But Bigsby found redemption late, converting a second-and-4 run that went down to the 1. He walked into the end zone on the next play to give Jacksonville a 24-21 lead.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.