Senior writer John Oehser’s first-person look at 25 memorable games in Jaguars history continues with this look at a 20-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Jaguars’ biggest upset victory in the 1995 expansion season
Date: October 8, 1995
Site: Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
Records entering game: Jaguars 1-4, Steelers 3-2.
What happened: The Jaguars, a week after recording the first victory in franchise history, returned to Jacksonville the following week and recorded the most remarkable win of the ’95 expansion season – a 20-16 upset over the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers. The game also marked the first victory of Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell’s career as a starter – and the first home regular-season victory in franchise history. The eventual 1995 AFC Central and AFC Champions, the Steelers had played in the AFC Championship game the previous season and featured the strong defense and ball-control offense that would in many ways set the tone for the Steelers-Jaguars rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Jaguars established a lead quickly on this day, building on the momentum of the previous week and thrilling a home crowd of 72,042 when Brunell capped a 79-yard, game-opening drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Cedric Tillman. The Jaguars’ defense limited the Steelers early, and running back James Stewart’s six-yard touchdown run capped an 88-yard drive that gave the Jaguars a 14-0 lead 54 seconds into the second quarter. A 15-yard pass from Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell to running back Steve Avery cut the Jaguars’ lead in half before Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis’ 53-yard field goal pushed the Jaguars’ lead to 17-7 just before halftime. The Jaguars held the lead throughout the second half, with Steelers kicker Norm Johnson cutting it to 17-10 with a 41-yard field goal on the first drive of the third quarter. Hollis’ 32-yard field goal ended the Jaguars’ next drive and gave them a 20-10 lead before Johnson’s 19-yard field goal on the ensuing possession made it 20-13. The Jaguars held the Steelers out of the end zone on two plays from inside the two-yard line just before Johnson’s field goal. Johnson’s third field goal of the game – a 22-yarder – cut the lead to 20-16 early in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers failed to score on three ensuing trips into Jaguars territory. The key play came midway through the fourth quarter, when Jaguars linebacker Keith Goganious stopped Steelers running back Bam Morris for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the Jaguars 7.
Jaguars leading passer: Brunell (17-30, 189 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions).
Jaguars leading rusher: Stewart (19 carries, 44 yards, one touchdown).
Jaguars leading receiver: Willie Jackson (six receptions, 94 yards).
Steelers leading passer: O’Donnell (19-35, 282 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions).
Steelers leading rusher: Erric Pegram (16 carries, 56 yards, no touchdowns).
Steelers leading receiver: Yancey Thigpen (six receptions, 160 yards).
The Steelers quickly developed into the Jaguars’ biggest rival in the early days of the franchise. This victory establishing the Jaguars as a young team with which the perennially-strong Steelers would have to contend.
Wide receiver Jimmy Smith: “The Steelers were the kings of our division, so we were pretty much built to beat the Steelers.”
Left tackle Tony Boselli: “They had been the class of the division forever. That was kind of the team that had been put up there that we were going to be built to beat.”
Make no mistake: The Jaguars considered the Steelers a rival – and a team to beat – from early in franchise history.
Brunell: “[Jaguars Head Coach] Tom [Coughlin] wasn’t conceding the division because we were an expansion team. He understood, ‘Listen, if you want to win the division it has to go through the Pittsburgh Steelers,’ so that was a huge emphasis for us. I don’t remember anything specifically he said, but I remember thinking, ‘OK, this is a division game. This is big.’ That came from the head coach.”
Defensive end Jeff Lageman: “I remember every Steelers game we ever played because of the downright arrogance of the Steelers coming here to play us – like they were going to grace the field with (their) presence and show us how they won. It pissed us off. We were an angry football team when we played the Steelers.”
This Steelers-Jaguars game was memorable for multiple reasons, including the heat.
Lageman: “It was a freaking furnace. They (the Steelers) just freaking wilted. They weren’t tough. We were mentally tougher than they were, and we were a hell of a lot more physically tough than they were from the heat.”
Brunell: “It was early. It was hot. We put them in the black jerseys. How much of an effect that had, I don’t know.”
The Jaguars won four games in their inaugural season: at Houston in Week 4, home against Pittsburgh in Week 5, at Cleveland in Week 7 and home against Cleveland in Week 17. Houston and Cleveland weren’t considered major upsets. But beating Pittsburgh?
Boselli: “(Laughing) No chance. The week before we beat Houston. That was huge for the franchise. It was the first one in the history of the franchise. Everyone knew that. But beating the Steelers …. They were everybody’s favorite to go to the Super Bowl – and they went. I don’t want to say it was bigger than the first win, but it was different because it was the Steelers. The Oilers weren’t very good. They barely beat us in the opener, but this was the big, bad Steelers. No one gave us a chance in you know what to beat them.”
The Steelers game was indicative of something else that defined that first season – Coughlin’s refusal to concede that because the Jaguars were an expansion team they were expected to lose.
Brunell: “He really truly believed that we had a chance in every game we played. A head coach always has to approach a game like that – even knowing how bad we were and how good they were. But Tom never acted like, ‘Hey, we lost a game because we’re an expansion team; no big deal.’ You would have thought with his approach that we were a team that had been around 10 years. He was very firm from early on that if we did basic football we could win. I think a win like that validated his approach for us. We snuck one in against Houston, but the Pittsburgh win was much different. We went in and went toe-to-toe with guys. We played tough. We played smart football. We didn’t turn the ball over too much. It was a significant win because a lot of guys at that moment bought more into Tom Coughlin than they had previously. The feeling was, ‘You know what? He’s right. We can go toe-to-toe in these games – regardless of the matchups or what the records were.’ He instilled a belief in that young team in 1995 that we could win any game regardless of who they had and who we didn’t have. It was a good win for Tom Coughlin because it was a win that established a measure of belief in this guy as a head coach that knows what he’s doing. Now, that didn’t make it any easier. He was still Tom throughout that whole year. But from the team’s perspective, he got a boost in morale because of that win. I think it spoke volumes.”
The Jaguars surprised the Steelers by taking a two-touchdown lead. They mostly held on after that. Key to the Jaguars’ offense was wide receiver Willie Jackson, who had a season-high 94 yards receiving on six receptions.
Brunell: “I’ve told people since, ‘We won that game throwing hitches to Willie Jackson.’ It was really basic. It wasn’t anything fancy. I couldn’t tell you any other plays, but obviously everything in 1995 was pretty simple. Nothing real elaborate.”
Boselli: “It was a physical game and everything kind of went our way. We were always in control. I remember winning that game and it was, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It was a little bit of shock because they were a huge favorite and they were the best team in the AFC, which proved to be the case.”
Despite the Jaguars leading throughout, there was a disbelief afterward that the expansion Jaguars had beaten a team that had been to the AFC Championship game a season before. Players were surprised, too.
Brunell: “It was like, ‘Dang, we just won that game.’ You kind of looked around and were like, ‘Did that just happen?’ I don’t remember much except thinking afterward, ‘Man, we just beat the Pittsburgh Steelers at our place.’ I think we were at least smart enough to know that we weren’t that good and that there weren’t going to be a lot of wins, so it was eye-opening for us. It’s one thing to beat the Oilers at their place, but to actually beat the Steelers at home? That was pretty cool.”
The Jaguars beat the Steelers at home every season from 1995-1999 and held an 8-6 series edge when the teams were AFC Central rivals from 1995-2001. Players said the victory in the first meeting set the tone.
Brunell: “Wins like that carry over to the next season and the season after that. It was a huge confidence booster. Even though we only won four and the next two wins after Pittsburgh were against Cleveland, the fact that we did it (beat Pittsburgh) in ’95 gave us a lot of confidence going forward: ‘We can beat these guys; we’ve done it before.’ That was a game that went beyond just beating a really good team at home. That was something that built a lot of confidence down the road.”
Lageman: “They were arrogant from the first time they walked on the field against us, like they were going to walk all over us because they were the Pittsburgh Steelers and we were a lowly expansion team. It pissed us off. The pissed-off attitude never left. The thought of that arrogance that they displayed in ’95 never left us. Also, it was a division game and they were the measuring stick. Put all that together and we were ready to play.”
That the first home victory in franchise history came over the Steelers seems fitting in retrospect.
Boselli: “It was in front of the fans. It was actually perfect, if you think about it. Obviously, you would love to win the opener, but to beat the class of the division, the class of the AFC … to be an expansion team and do that in front of your home fans for your first home win is huge. And I think the fans were going, ‘This is amazing.’’’