By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
MINNEAPOLIS: Brian Hoyer gave the Browns the spark they desperately needed, bounced back to deliver in the clutch and made a strong case for himself to remain their starting quarterback.
Hoyer capped a thrilling, 11-play, 55-yard drive by throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron in the back corner of the end zone with 55 seconds remaining, and the Browns held on to upset the Minnesota Vikings 31-27 on Sunday at the Metrodome. Not bad for a guy from North Olmsted who grew up rooting for the Browns.
“I just hope I did not put my wife into labor by having it end the way it did,” said Hoyer, a St. Ignatius High School graduate whose wife, Lauren, is due to have the couple’s second child Oct. 21. “But it will definitely go down as something special. You guys ask me a million times, ‘Does it mean more playing for your hometown team?’ Yes, obviously it does, and to get that first win is huge.”
It was the Browns’ first victory since Dec. 9, Rob Chudzinski’s first win as an NFL head coach and Hoyer’s first win as a starter since he entered the league in 2009. In his second career start, Hoyer completed 30-of-54 passes (55.6 percent) for 321 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions, posting a passer rating of 68.5. He became the 19th quarterback to start for the Browns (1-2) since their expansion era began in 1999, but only he and Jeff Garcia (2004) have won their first starts with the team.
In his postgame news conference, Chudzinski would not commit to starting Hoyer again, explaining he wants to think about the decision and discuss it with other members of the organization. But Chudzinski obviously loved what Hoyer showed down the stretch.
“All those guys in that huddle, looking in their eyes when we went in there and right before that drive, they believed,” said Chudzinski, who became emotional when inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson presented him with the game ball after the win. “Brian gave us a spark today and did a great job, made the plays down the stretch when you had to make the plays. I can’t emphasize enough these guys in this locker room and how they’ve responded.”
It all happened in the wake of a wild week.
The Browns traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2014 draft and gave Hoyer the nod to replace Brandon Weeden, who was sidelined with a sprained right thumb, even though Jason Campbell was listed ahead of him on the depth chart. The decisions left many Browns fans outraged and prompted accusations that the franchise was giving up on this season.
“For fans to even say that we’ll tank the season, it’s a slap in the face as a player and as a coach,” Jackson said. “All the time we spend preparing, our bodies ache, the things we sacrifice, you can’t even fathom anything like that. We won one and now what? It should show people that we’re not trying to tank anything.”
Trailing by three points and dealing with deafening crowd noise, the Browns took control on their own 45-yard line with 3:21 remaining in the fourth quarter. After posting a passer rating of just 9.6 in the third quarter that included two interceptions, Hoyer rebounded. He completed 6-of-11 passes for 55 yards during the deciding drive, including an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Josh Gordon on third-and-10 at the Browns’ 45 and a short pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya that turned into a an 11-yard gain on second-and-7 at the Vikings’ 41. Gordon finished with a career-high 10 receptions for 146 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown in the first quarter, giving the offense a significant boost upon his return from a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Cameron beat the coverage of Vikings free safety Harrison Smith in the back corner of the end zone and hauled in his third touchdown, tying a single-game franchise record.
“They brought the house, and I just ran to the corner,” said Cameron, who caught six passes for 66 yards, including touchdowns of 19, 11 and 7 yards. “Brian put the ball where no one else could get it.”
After Cameron caught the game-winning touchdown pass, the defense finished the job. But it was a nail-biter, because the Vikings (0-3) marched to the Browns’ 34, positioning themselves to take two shots at the end zone.
Strong safety T.J. Ward broke up a jump ball at the goal line that quarterback Christian Ponder intended for wide receiver Simpson with four seconds left. Defensive end Desmond Bryant sacked Ponder on the next play to end the game and then bumped chests with offensive left tackle Joe Thomas to celebrate.
“It’s a great, great feeling to end the game that way,” Bryant said. “They always say, ‘Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.’ I feel I was able to do that.”
The Browns made big plays in all phases. The offense thrived in crunch time, the defense held Adrian Peterson, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, to 88 yards on 25 carries (3.5 average) and the special teams fooled the Vikings twice to help the Browns build a 24-17 halftime lead.
Josh Aubrey’s 37-yard run on a fake punt set up Billy Cundiff’s successful 38-yard field goal with 6:07 left in the second quarter. Spencer Lanning later served as the holder during a fake field goal and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cameron with 3:39 left in the first half.
The aggressive plays paid off and although the Vikings charged back to seize a 27-24 lead via Blair Walsh’s 30-yard field goal with 10:47 left in the fourth quarter, Hoyer and Co. countered in the waning moments. The players believe they made a statement to fans who thought nothing was left in Browns Town but doom and gloom in the aftermath of a bizarre week.
“I used to think that way, too,” Hoyer said, recalling his days as a Cleveland sports fan. “Hopefully this is a change.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.