Justin Jefferson’s 2 TDs, D.J. Wonnum’s 51-yard fumble return lift Vikings over Panthers 21-13
Published 6:21 pm Sunday, October 1, 2023
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith said he didn’t come into Sunday’s game expecting to be an integral part of the team’s defensive pressure package.
It just turned out that way.
The six-time Pro Bowl selection had three timely sacks, including a strip-sack of rookie Bryce Young that led to a momentum-changing 51-yard fumble return for a touchdown by D.J. Wonnum and the Vikings defeated the Carolina Panthers 21-13 on Sunday for their first win of the season.
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Kirk Cousins overcame two interceptions, including one that was returned 99 yards for a touchdown, and threw two touchdown passes to Justin Jefferson and the Vikings finally found some positive momentum.
Alexander Mattison added 95 yards on the ground for Minnesota (1-3).
But it was Smith who provided the spark.
With the Vikings trailing 13-7 late in the third quarter, Smith raced in untouched on a blitz and sacked Young from behind, stripping him of the ball. The ball bounced off Young’s leg and careened further into the backfield where Wonnum scooped it up and scored.
Marcus Davenport sacked Young on third down on Carolina’s next possession and Cousins found Jefferson along the left sideline for a 30-yard touchdown strike to give the Vikings a 21-13 lead on the final play of the third quarter.
The Panthers attempted to rally late, reaching the Vikings 9 with less than two minutes remaining.
But the Vikings turned to the safety blitz again and Smith sacked Young twice on the final three plays, including on fourth-and-goal at the 18, to seal the win. Minnesota finished with five sacks, all coming in the second half.
“It wasn’t like they said to me, ‘Harry, we need you to get three sacks,'” Smith said. “But when your number is called, you have to make that play when it presents itself.”
Smith credited defensive coordinator Brian Flores for putting him in the right position to make plays.
“Flo has a good handle on what we can do and what they might see and how they might attack us,” Smith said. “He called a great game. A lot of that is calls and then it’s up to the players to execute. I just happened to be the guy that gets the pub(licity) this week.”
Said Woonum: “He’s been making plays his entire career. His causing that fumble and us getting that scoop and score was the difference in the game.”
Young finished 25 of 32 for 204 yards for Carolina, falling to 0-3 as an NFL starter.
The winless Panthers (0-4) find themselves in a tremendous hole. Of the 164 teams that have started 0-4 in the Super Bowl era, only the 1992 Chargers went on to make the playoffs.
“No one is satisfied with progress, and not results,” Panthers coach Frank Reich said. “We understand we are in a results business. We aren’t here just because we drafted a quarterback No. 1 and saying, ‘well we will just build to the future.’ We are here to win right now.”
The Vikings entered the game with a league-high seven lost fumbles and last in the league turnover differential at minus-7.
That trend continued on the game’s first possession when Cousins threw toward the left pylon and was intercepted by safety Sam Franklin, who returned it a Carolina franchise record 99 yards for a 7-0 lead.
“Very, very frustrating to throw that interception,” Cousins said. “Poor read and then when you’re late to the flat, the ball’s left inside. Very disappointing play by me.”
Another Cousins interception late in the first half — this time after he was hit in the pocket by Yetur Gross-Matos as he was releasing the ball — led to Eddy Pineiro’s 56-yard field goal giving Carolina a 13-7 lead at the half.
But the Panthers didn’t score in the second half and were limited 121 yards after the break.
Cousins credited his defense for keeping the Vikings in the game.
“They made plays, scored a touchdown and Harrison Smith was phenomenal,” Cousins said. “That was big. For our defense to get us the momentum back as Carolina was driving, and to turn it into seven points for us was huge.”
Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell also praised his defense.
“When we gave up an interception that resulted directly into points early, those guys fought off that feeling of, ‘Woe is me’ or ‘Here we go again,'” O’Connell said. “Our guys weren’t having it. We found a way to piece together a complementary win.”
AKERS MAKES DEBUT
Running back Cam Akers made his Vikings debut and finished with 40 yards on five carries along with two catches for 11 yards. Akers was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I like this guy, this guy is bringing good energy to our huddle and line of scrimmage. That was awesome,” Cousins said.
NO REVENGE FOR THIELEN
Adam Thielen finished with seven catches for 76 yards against his former team while battling through a mid-game ankle injury.
“I definitely wanted this win,” Thielen said.
Vikings: None reported.
Panthers: Cornerback Donte Jackson left the game in the first half with a shoulder injury and did not return. The Panthers entered the game without two other defensive backs in Jaycee Horn and Xavier Woods.
Vikings: Host Kansas City on Sunday.
Panthers: At Detroit on Sunday.