The senior quarterback bounced back from his poorest outing of the season with probably the finest showing of his long career, and in the process guided Azusa Pacific to an impressive 27-17 victory over Humboldt State University Saturday night in the Redwood Bowl.
Carlton, who a week ago threw for just 101 yards on 13-for-24 passing in a disheartening loss to Southern Oregon, came back tonight to complete 19-of-25 passes for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns, leading the Cougars to their most lopsided victory ever at the Redwood Bowl.
At one point, he completed 18-of-23 passes to spur a 27-2 Cougar run in which Azusa Pacific took over the game and seemed unstoppable on offense.
“It was nice to see Rudy relax and play the system tonight,” said Cougar coach Victor Santa Cruz. “He read their defense very, very well. He was patient and got after it tonight.”
After Humboldt State marched 40 yards on the game’s opening drive to assume a quick 7-0 lead, the Cougars came right back on their first possession with an impressive 75-yard drive, tying the game at 7-7 when Carlton connected with Jon Davis on an 8-yard pass play. For Davis, it was his NAIA-leading 13th touchdown catch of the season, and for Carlton, it was just beginning of a terrific night for him. On the drive he completed all 5 of his pass attempts, tallying 59 yards in the process.
“I’m proud of him,” said Santa Cruz. “He was one of the first players we recruited when I got here, and it’s been a long road for him, but he is seeing the fruit of his labor.”
In fact, Carlton completed his first 9 pass attempts of the game for 114 yards and in the process set up a Ben Hansen 48-yard field goal on the Cougars’ second possession to give Azusa Pacific a 10-7 advantage that it would not relinquish the rest of the night. It was the second-longest field goal in Hansen’s young career and certainly added to his already growing reputation as a steady and potent offensive weapon for the Cougars.
Hansen added a 25-yard field goal late in the first half to give Azusa Pacific a 13-7 advantage.
The Cougar defense, which was stellar throughout the first half after the Lumberjacks’ opening drive, was somewhat a victim of its own success. Azusa Pacific continually thwarted HSU drives, even one that started at the midfield stripe following Hansen’s second field goal. As a result, the Lumberjacks used a terrific punt to pin Azusa Pacific at its own 1-yard line. The Cougars tried to run out the first half clock but HSU used its time outs, forcing the Cougar Andrew Lutton to punt from deep in his own end zone, and the Lumberjacks took full advantage, becoming the first team to block a Lutton punt this season. Azusa Pacific recovered the ball in the end zone but the Lumberjacks had a bonus 2 points on the safety to cut the Cougar margin to 13-9 at halftime.
Carlton, though, opened the second half right where he left off in the first, wielding a hot hand and completing his first 4 passes of the frame, including a 14-yard TD strike to Paul Hardiman to increase the Cougar lead to 20-9.
After the Cougar defense held the Lumberjacks to a 3-and-out on their opening possession of the second half, Carlton went right back to work, hitting Jordan Farrell for 28-yard pick up and then going back to Davis for a 19-yard catch to put the ball to the Lumberjack 37-yard line. Two plays later, Carlton went back Davis and the pair struck pay dirt again with a 31-yard scoring play that put Azusa Pacific up 27-9.
Humboldt State shot itself in the foot with 2 second-half turnovers that caused a 14-point swing in the game. Lumberjack receiver Henry Edwin, an electrifying kick returner, muffed the Cougars’ first punt of the second half, and Cougar Monti Sutton recovered the loose ball at the HSU 12. Two plays later, Carlton hit Hardiman for their second TD connection of the year.
Late in the third quarter, Humboldt State got its offense in gear and began moving on the stingy Cougar defense. They drove 77 yards on just 11 plays, scoring on a 5-yard Brian Hildebrand quarterback sneak which, coupled with a successful 2-point conversion, pulled the Lumberjacks to within 10 at 27-17 to start the fourth quarter. With the offense still revving, the Lumberjacks came right back and drove 83 yards for a second-and-goal at the Cougar 2-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. However, Marcus Cox, who a year ago scored the game-winning TD with 33 seconds left in the Lumberjacks’ 31-24 verdict in Azusa, this time fumbled the ball following a hit by Cougar LB Jay York. Andre Hunter fell on the loose ball to allow Azusa Pacific to preserve its 10-point lead.
The Lumberjacks had one last opportunity to make the game interesting, but Cougar strong safety Beau Leaman picked off a Hildebrand pass with 3 minutes left to clinch just Azusa Pacific’s third-ever victory in 11 trips to the Redwood Bowl.
The Cougars held Humboldt State to just 296 yard of total offense and 156 came on those back-to-back 11-play, 75-plus-yard drive late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter. Other than that, the Cougars held the Lumberjacks to just 140 yards on its other 9 possessions and just 51 yards over 6 drives midway through the game. York led the Cougars with 7 tackles, the aforementioned key forced fumble and an interception.
“I’m really happy for the defense,” said Santa Cruz. “They are playing very well right now with something like just 4 TDs over the past 12 quarters. They’re able to adapt, listening to adjustments during the game and staying a couple of moves ahead of the other team’s offense.”
Davis finished the game with 6 catches for 104 yards and 2 TDs and now has 14 TD catches on the season, just 1 shy of All-American Dexter Davis’ single-season school record 15 set during the Cougars’ 1998 NAIA championship season.
“There is a real commitment to one other on this team,” said Santa Cruz, “from the players to each other and to the coaching staff. I’ve seen this team grow and not let circumstances or past experiences hinder them. In life, you have to find a way to produce when things are tough, and right now you’re seeing the maturation of a team."
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 3-5 on the season, while Humboldt State falls to 2-4.