Southern Oregon parlayed a botched snap on a point-after-attempt early in the fourth quarter into an unplanned 2-point conversion which proved to be the difference as the Raiders held on for a 14-13 victory over the Cougars Saturday evening before a crowd of 2,122.
The Raiders, who trailed throughout the first 3 quarters of play, appeared to be headed toward tying the game after Shane Van Zant squirted into the end zone from 4 yards out to pull SOU to within a point at 13-12 with 11:48 left in the game. On the ensuing point-after-attempt, holder J.C. Hunsaker made a leaping stab of a high snap that pulled him out of his crouch. With no other available option, Hunsaker ran to his right, twisting, turning and bouncing off would-be tacklers, finally pushing his way into the end zone for the unconventional 2 points and a Raider lead.
Hunsaker’s heroics took all the drama out of what could have been a sprint to the finish over the final 11 minutes of the game. Instead of punting the ball had the game been tied and pinning SOU deep in its own territory, twice Azusa Pacific had to go for it on fourth down, and misfired both times, including a fourth-and-2 play with 1:58 left in the game, sealing the final outcome.
“You have to give Southern Oregon credit,” said Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz about the only NAIA team to beat the Cougars this year. “They are a tough team. They are a very good independent in the NAIA, and I know I’ll vote for them in the next coaches’ poll.”
Azusa Pacific assumed a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter when Alex Peltier capped an 11-play, 60-yard drive with a 4-yard sprint up the middle for his second TD of the season.
A Cory O’Neill 26-yard field goal, his second of the first half, cut the Cougar advantage to 7-6 at halftime.
On the strength of a pair of Ben Hansen field goals of 28 and 27 yards, the Cougars pushed their advantage to 13-6 in the third quarter. In each case, Azusa Pacific converted 2 fourth-down plays that not only kept the drives going, but moved the Cougars inside the Raider 10-yard line. On the first one, holder Rodney Trimm completed a fake field goal by hitting Jon Davis on a 20-yard pass play. On the other drive, Southern Oregon was flagged for its second of what would be 3 unsportsmanlike penalties in the game to convert a fourth-down. However, the Cougars could not run away from SOU by punching the ball into the end zone either time.
As a result, the Raiders lingered in Azusa Pacific’s shadow long enough, and behind the powerful running of Marlon Rosales, SOU marched 68 yards on 14 plays against a tired Cougar defense to assume the lead on Van Zant’s and Hunsaker’s game-changing plays.
Azusa Pacific experienced difficulty getting into an offensive rhythm. Behind Rosales’ time-consuming runs, the Cougars managed just 4 snaps in the first 12 minutes of the game. Adding to the problem was a stingy and opportunistic Raider defense that picked off QB Rudy Carlton on the first play of the Cougars’ second possession, and then recovered a fumble of a Cougar kickoff return near midfield. On the opening drive of the second half, Carlton fumbled near midfield after converting a third-down play.
“The turnovers and the timing of them really killed us tonight,” said Santa Cruz. “We were just hoping to get some sort of rhythm and it was hard to.”
As much as the Cougars hiccupped on offense, so too did the game officials with a pair of bizarre third quarter calls that certainly added to Azusa Pacific’s mounting frustration. The Cougars appeared to have scored its second TD of the game when Carlton hit Davis on a 6-yard pass completion in the back of the end zone. Signaled as such by the officials, the Cougar special teams unit moved onto the field for an extra point only to change its plans when another official came in late to rule the pass an incompletion and forcing the Cougars instead to kick a field goal.
Then on one of the aforementioned fourth-down conversions, the Cougars appeared to have converted it when Davis made a spectacular 30-yard catch which the officials confirmed when they automatically and clearly signalled an Azusa Pacific declining of a pass interference flag dropped on an SOU defender on the play. Moments later, however, the officials marched off a 15-yard penalty against the Raiders, negating what was orginally called a completion for the Cougars.
Though Rosales didn’t score in the game, he was the crux of the Raider offense, accounting for a season-high 124 yards on 30 carries, more than half of Southern Oregon’s 218 yards of total offense for the game. Southern Oregon entered the contgest averaging just 56 rushing yards a game this season.
“Like us, Southern Oregon is trying to get better every week,” said Santa Cruz, “and their run game was very good tonight. Rosales did a good job of being patient and using some cutbacks.”
Southern Oregon had the ball 13 minutes more than the Cougars and ran 24 more plays than Azusa Pacific but
Peltier rushed for 46 yards on 18 carries, and Carlton finished 13-for-24 passing and 103 yards, snapping a string of 6 straight 200-yard passing games.
“Rudy is such a good QB,” said Santa Cruz. “He is a warrior, and wants to win so bad. He’ll bounce back and be great next week. In fact, we’ll be fine. We have to remember, our defense did a super job against an offense that came in averaging 30 points a game. To hold them to 14 points and just 1 TD is very good.”
The Cougars, now 2-5 on the season, return to the road next week and visit Humboldt State University, Saturday (Oct. 13) for a 6 p.m. game in Arcata, Calif. Southern Oregon, which improves to 3-2, returns home for the first time since Aug. 25, to host Linfield College.