AZUSA, Calif. –- Ron Caragher is all about seizing opportunity – and so too is his team.
University of San Diego turned a pair of turnovers into 2 early touchdowns in 20 seconds, and then parlayed an 87-yard kickoff return into another score as USD rolled out to a big lead and then held on to beat Azusa Pacific, 42-32, in Caragher’s first game as a collegiate head coach.
When he heard that the San Diego position came open last spring after former Torero coach Jim Harbaugh was named the new Stanford mentor, Caragher jumped at the chance to leave Kentucky and return to his Southern California roots by taking over a USD program that had gone 22-2 over the previous 2 seasons.
Not much has changed for USD – even with a new coach and temporarily a new quarterback.
Sophomore QB Andrew Rolin, starting in the place of All-American Josh Johnson who was serving a 1-game suspension for violating team rules, excelled in his first collegiate start, completing 12-of-16 passes for 177 yards and 4 TDs, including a 59-yard strike to John Matthews on the Toreros’ first play of the second half that put USD up 35-3 at the time.
All-conference RB J.T. Rogan rushed for 118 yards on 23 carries and had 3 receptions for 36 yards, including 2 that were touchdown tosses from Rolin.
Early on, it didn’t appear that this would be an easy game for USD, but the Toreros took advantage of 2 critical Cougar turnovers and cashed in each for quick scores and a 2 touchdown lead.
Azusa Pacific appeared to be headed toward the game’s first touchdown, turning a USD muffed punt into a scoring opportunity with the ball inside the Torero 10-yard line. However, consecutive mistakes turned what should have been a Cougar lead into back-to-back Torero touchdowns in a matter of just 20 seconds.
On third and goal at the Torero 9, Cougar QB Rudy Carlton was hit on a pass that Torero FS Patrick O’Neill picked off and returned 93 yards for a touchdown. On the ensuring kickoff, Torero Jason Blake drilled Azusa Pacific kick returner Monti Sutton, who put the ball turf at the Cougar 18-yard line where USD’s Tyler Evans fell on it. On the next play, Rolin hit Rogan on a swing pass that Rogan took to the end zone.
Instead of Azusa Pacific being up 7-0, the Cougars trailed 14-0 in the blink of an eye.
Following Ben Hansen’s 24-yard field goal for Azusa Pacific to make it 14-3 and seemingly calm the waters, Rogan took the ensuing kickoff 87 yards in the opposite direction to set up San Diego’s third score, a Rolin 12-yard pass to Rogan for another touchdown on the second play of the second quarter.
“We spotted them 7 with the wrong personnel and then they got 2 good returns and it’s 21-3 before you know it and you’re fighting uphill” said Cougar coach Victor Santa Cruz.
Midway through the second quarter, USD sustained its only drive of the first half, moving 57 yards on 11 plays, capped by Rolin’s third-down 1-yard push into the end zone to give the Toreros a 28-3 halftime lead.
The Matthews touchdown early in the third quarter, which simply was a short Rolin pass over the middle that Matthews took the final 51 yards to the house untouched, allowed Caragher to empty the bench for the fourth quarter, which nearly turned out to be a moment too soon.
Azusa Pacific put a thrill back in the game by scoring 3 touchdowns in less than 3 minutes to pull to within 10 at 42-32 with just 2 minutes remaining to play.
With 6 minutes left in the game and down 42-10 at the time, the Cougars drove 57 yards on 5 plays, sparked by Carlton’s 38-yard frozen rope to Paul Hardiman. Carlton’s 9-yard touchdown slant to senior WR Todd Wilson, his first TD in 26 collegiate games, seemed harmless at the time.
However, Ben Hansen perfectly placed onside kick took an advantageous high bounce and fell into the hands of Jayson Sanchez to Azusa Pacific another possession at the Cougar 46-yard line. In an identical sequence of events, Carlton again hit Hardiman on long play, this one for 36 yards to put the ball on the Toreros 7. On the next snap, Carlton hit Wilson on the same scoring play for another TD.
USD handled the next Cougar onside attempt, but back-to-back fumbles, both of which USD recovered, put the Toreros in a deep hole and they had to punt from midfield. Cougar Trent Sakioka, who a year ago was fourth in the NAIA punt returns, took the kick and zigzagged 77 yards along the sideline for another Cougar TD, pulling Azusa Pacific to within 10 at 42-32 with 2:01 left in the game.
USD recovered another Cougar onside attempt, and this time, with Rogan and the first-unit back in the game, the Toreros were able to run out the clock, though Rogan did fumble the ball, recovering it before a Cougar could hit him.
“Our team spirit is there, and that’s a winning spirit,” said Santa Cruz. “We just need to put it together in a clean game.”
However, Caragher put his first unit back into the game to run out the clock and secure the victory.
Evidence of USD’s big-play, opportunistic style of attack is the fact that Azusa Pacific controlled the ball most of the night, running 27 more plays than USD while fashioning a 6-a-half-minute advantage in time-of-possession. However, the Cougars, who had 3 turnovers result in TDs last week against MidAmerica Nazarene University, committed 2 more turnovers tonight that turned into touchdowns for the foe.
“I have a lot of respect for San Diego, but we sure didn’t help out ourselves tonight,” said Santa Cruz.
Carlton completed a career-high 23-of-42 pass attempts for 284 yards and 3 TDs. He lofted a perfectly placed 11-yard lob pass to Hardiman in the corner of the end zone for the Cougars’ first TD of the night, making the score 35-10 with just over 8 minutes left in the third quarter. It was the Cougars' first TD against USD since Ben Buys' game-winning 5-yard run with 56 seconds left in the 2004 game, a span covering 10 quarters.
Hardiman finished with a career-high 5 catches for 107 yards. Jon Davis led all receivers with 8 grabs for 74 yards.
With the win San Diego is now 1-0 while Azusa Pacific falls to 0-2.