PLATTE CITY, Mo. –- MidAmerica Nazarene University scored 3 touchdowns in less than a 4-minute span early in the fourth quarter to break open a close game and beat Azusa Pacific, 59-38, in the inaugural Victory Sports Network First Down Classic before a crowd of 2,288 in Platte City, Mo., Saturday night.
The Pioneers, who are ranked No. 17 in the NAIA Coaches’ Preseason Poll, used big plays, critical third-down conversions, and 3 knee-buckling Cougar turnovers to escape with the victory after Azusa Pacific had rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to tie the game early in the fourth quarter.
In their season-opener, the 2 teams combined for 97 points, 42 of which came in the fourth quarter, and 987 yards of total offense. MNU rolled out to a 21-3 lead before the first quarter closed and was still seemingly in control with a 31-17 halftime advantage.
However, behind the combo play of quarterback Rudy Carlton and wide receiver Jon Davis, who teamed for 4 touchdown strikes, Azusa Pacific turned the tide of momentum and appeared to be headed toward a stolen victory in front of the partisan MidAmerica crowd. Following Davis’ spectacular 14-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone to knot the score at 31 on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cougars recovered Brock Drumm’s fumble of the ensuing kickoff at the Pioneer 34-yard line. An Alex Peltier run up the middle put the ball at the MNU 24 and the Cougars were in prime position to take their first lead of the game.
That’s when MidAmerica used an lightening strike to electrocute the Cougars into submission.
On the next play, MidAmerica linebacker Nick Beghtol, a former catcher on Azusa Pacific’s baseball team back in 2006, jarred the ball loose from Cougar wide receiver James Webster, and Pioneer Nick Hanson pounced on the loose ball at the MNU 18. Three plays later, MidAmerica quarterback Matt Schneider hit LaDrew Murrell in perfect stride for a 65-yard touchdown bomb to invigorate a Pioneer offense that had sputtered on 3 third quarter drives.
Two-and-a-half minutes later, after holding Azusa Pacific to a 3-and-out possession, Schneider and his quick-strike offense punched the Cougars again when he connected with Pat Ealy on a 39-yard touchdown pass to push the MNU advantage to 45-31.
Cougar wide out Todd Wilson then fumbled a completed Carlton pass on the Cougars’ first play of the next drive and 2 plays later Schneider found Lynn Hoffman alone in the end zone for a 2-yard TD toss and an insurmountable 52-31 Pioneer lead with 10:06 left in the game.
MidAmerica proved to be highly opportunistic throughout the entire game. The Pioneers set the tone on the opening play, inducing Cougar Donny Lee to fumble the game’s opening kickoff. MNU’s Edward Hawkins picked up the loose ball and scooted 15 yards untouched for a TD less than 10 seconds into the game.
In addition, when Azusa Pacific appeared to have the Pioneers cornered, they wiggled away by converting 8-of-14 third downs, including 4 on 3 touchdown drives.
And if crucial turnovers and clutch play were difficult enough to overcome, Azusa Pacific had to contend with Schneider, the game’s offensive MVP who completed 22-of-33 passes for 382 yards and 4 TDs, 3 of which covered 35-or-more yards in length. His only mistake of the night cost the Pioneers another TD when Cougar LB Brian Casey picked off a Schneider pass at the Cougar 1-yard line on the Pioneers’ opening drive.
Carlton tried his best to answer Schenider’s performance by fashioning his best single-game effort in nearly 2 years. He completed 17-of-33 passes without an interception while tossing 4 TD strikes, all to Davis. Late in the first quarter he scrambled from an oncoming rush to find Davis alone down the left sideline for a 37-yard strike and the Cougars’ first TD to make it a 21-10 game at the time. After finding Davis for 5- and 14-yard scores, he closed his night’s work with a 36-toss to Davis in the end zone to pull the Cougars to within a pair of TDs at 52-38 with just under 7 minutes left in the game.
However, Schneider put the game on ice when he converted a third-down play on the next drive with a 20-yard toss to James Perry. Seven plays later, Pat Ealy capped his 173-yard rushing effort with a 3-yard TD punch.
Davis matched his single-game career-high with 8 receptions and tallied a personal-best 142 yards. His 4 TDs ties a single-game school record first set by Steve Preston vs. George Fox College (Ore.) in 1967 and then matched again by All-American Dexter Davis vs. University of La Verne in 1998.
The 59 points are the most surrendered by a Cougar team since 2001 when Southern Oregon slapped 64 on Azusa Pacific.