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A Celebratory Comeback

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October 20, 2007
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. – On a night that Jon Davis shattered a school record, he’ll probably be better remembered for a game-winning 43-yard touchdown catch with 4:39 left to play that lifted Azusa Pacific to a 38-34 victory over NCAA Division III No. 23-ranked Whitworth College.

Early in the contest, Davis tied and then broke the school record for the most touchdown catches in a season, but much later in the night it was his fourth touchdown grab of the game, an over-the-middle snag among 3 Whitworth defenders, that proved to be more significant – it was the difference-maker.

“I knew I was going to catch it because Rudy (Carlton) floated a perfect ball to me,” said Davis, “but I thought I was going to get my head knocked off. I couldn’t believe no one touched me, and that I took it in for a score.”

Davis’ score erased the memory of 4 Cougar turnovers, including one early in the fourth quarter that Whitworth immediately turned into a touchdown and its first lead since the opening minutes of the game, and then another with 30 seconds left and with the Cougars clinging to the 4-point lead.

“It wasn’t a perfect game by any means,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victory Santa Cruz, “but the guys grew a lot by overcoming adversity and continuing to compete all the way to the end.”

Cougar QB Rudy Carlton, who for the second straight week was outstanding in play, nearly wasn’t around for his game-ending heroics because of his own personal adversity. Memories of an oft-injured past came rushing to the forefront when Carlton, who has been injury-free all season and is putting together one best campaigns ever by a Cougar QB, came out midway through the third quarter with an injury suffered on a hard sack. Freshman Rodney Trimm completed the stalled-out drive and the next 2 before Carlton was faced with a decision.

“The doctors were saying there was a high, high risk of doing more serious damage if I kept playing,” said Carlton, “and I really didn’t know what to do. I felt pressed for a decision after we fell behind, and there’s something about these guys, more than any other that I’ve played with here, that I felt like I needed to play for them.”

So with just over 7 minutes remaining and the Cougars facing a 3-point deficit, Carlton returned to action and put together the game-winning 78-yard drive that included a crucial third-down completion in which senior WR Paul Hardiman made a spectacular 25-yard one-handed catch to keep the drive alive. Two plays after Davis dropped a sure touchdown pass, he came back for the game-winner amongst a crowd of defenders.

“It was a phenomenal catch,” said Carlton, “Jon didn’t flinch.”

Azusa Pacific rolled out to a 21-7 lead, scoring touchdowns on 3 of its first 4 possessions. Much like he was last week in the Cougars’ victory at Humboldt State, Carlton had a hot hand to start the game, picking apart the Pirate secondary by completing 17 of his first 21 passes for 228 yards and 3 TDs in less than one half of play. His 15-yard swing pass to Todd Wilson on the Cougars’ second possession, completed a 7-play, 59-yard drive that tied the game at 7-7. Azusa Pacific then took its first lead of the game when Carlton fired a 16-yard bullet to Davis in the back of the end zone. The Cougars came right back to go 64 yards on just 5 plays, highlighted by Carlton’s 41-yard pass to James Webster that put the ball at the Pirate 16-yard line. Two plays later, Carlton connected again with Davis on a 4-yard corner fade, a touchdown that broke All-American Dexter Davis’ school single-season record of 15 touchdown receptions set during the Cougars’ 14-game NAIA championship season in 1998.

“I was really excited about the record, and I think it showed in the celebration,” said Davis, “but the feeling went away pretty quick after they came back.”

Whitworth scored 2 touchdowns in the final 2 minutes of the first half to pull even with Azusa Pacific, 21-21 at halftime. After Adam Anderson capped a 68-yard drive with a 4-yard blast up the middle to make it 21-14, he turned around and knotted the game with 15 seconds left in the frame after Pirate Phillip Entel intercepted Carlton and returned the ball to the Cougar 5 to set up Anderson’s TD.

In the second half, Carlton and his gang picked up right where they left off. After Trent Sakioka returned the opening kickoff 56 yards, Carlton hit Hardiman on a 23-yard slant over the middle. On the next play, he found Davis again for a 7-yard TD score to quickly put the Cougars back on top 28-21.

Undaunted, Whitworth came right back, driving the ball right at the gut of the Cougar defense by moving 65 yards and using 7 running plays which included a 15-yard Anderson run around left end for his third TD of the game. However, Azusa Pacific blocked the PAT and retained the lead at 28-21.

With Trimm at the controls, Azusa Pacific tacked on another 3 points off Ben Hansen’s 45-yard field goal, his seventh straight make of the season that pushed the Cougar advantage to 31-27.

Whitworth seemed to be headed toward a go-ahead score late in the third quarter, moving 52 yards on 7 consecutive rushes. And when Pirate QB Kory Kemp completed a rare pass attempt, a 13-yarder on a naked bootleg to TE Drew Griggs, Whitworth found itself the Cougar 11-yard line.

“Whitworth is an offensive machine,” said Santa Cruz. “They do a great job of zone blocking and then hitting the gaps. Their offensive line is very well coached.”

The Cougar defense, though, tightened and forced the Pirates into a near chip-shot of a 23-yard field goal. That’s when senior DE Casey Roel began to emerge with the first of several key fourth-quarter plays, blocking the field goal and preserving Azusa Pacific’s 4-point lead.

The Cougars, though, gave the ball right back on the next play from scrimmage when Trimm fumbled and Whitworth recovered at the Azusa Pacific 17-yard line. Wasting no time and leaving nothing to a field goal chance, Kemp took control of the situation and on the first play scooted 17 yards up the middle on a quarterback drawl to give Whitworth its first lead since late in the first quarter at 34-31.

Azusa Pacific was 3-and-out on its next possession, and Whitworth was seemingly headed toward the victory when the Pirates moved 59 yards in the opposite direction, in part because of a successful fake punt on fourth down. The Cougars could not stop the Whitworth run game, so in a desperate situation they turned to Pirate tactics and stripped Anderson of the ball at the Cougar 22-yard line. Cougar senior DB Mike Perez pounced on the loose pigskin to stop Whitworth’s momentum.

"I think the timing of their turnover balanced out against the number of our turnovers," said Santa Cruz. "That was huge for us to get the ball right then."

At that point Carlton re-entered the game and re-energized the Cougars with the game-winnning drive.

“The coaching staff does a great job of keeping us mentally in the game,” said Carlton. “They tell us that the scoreboard is a liar and that we have to play with short memories and forget our mistakes and our failures. I had all the confidence in the world that we would come back to score and take the lead.”

Down by 4 points and with just 4 minutes left in the game, Whitworth was forced into an uncomfortable position of throwing the ball, and Roel went on the attack, chasing and hurrying Kemp on several pass plays before he finally sacked him for the third time in the game on a key third down play.

“We were hoping to get out ahead and force them to come from behind by having to throw the ball,” said Roel. “We knew we could take advantage of them in that situation, but their o-line is great. It just beats up people, and we couldn’t get them in that situation until late in the game.”

The Pirates could not convert on fourth down, and Azusa Pacific had the game wrapped up other than another fumble with 30 seconds that gave the Pirates a smattering of hope that was eventually dashed.

“I said it last year, and I’ll say it again,” said Roel, “we will not let our seniors lose their homecoming game.”

Carlton finished the game 22-of-34 passing for 352 yards and a career-high 5 touchdowns. He now has 24 TD passes on the season, just 6 shy of the school-single season record, and the 34 scoring tosses for his career are third most ever by a Cougar QB.

Davis tallied 7 catches for 149 yards and for the third time this season tied the school single-game record with 4 TD catches. He now has an NAIA-leading 18 touchdown catches on the season and in the process of tonight’s game became only the third Cougar receiver ever to register a 1,000-yard season, checking in with 1,013 yards in just 9 games to date (113.2 avg.).

Wilson and Webster each had 5 catches, Webster’s covering a career-high 82 yards, and Wilson’s accounting for 63. Roel had a career-high 11 tackles and had a hand in 4 tackles for loss.

“You saw a senior class making plays tonight and putting some of the last finishing touches on their careers,” said Santa Cruz. “I’m happy for them to leave home on a winning note in front of homecoming crowd.”

Anderson led the Whitworth attack by rushing for 149 yards on 32 carries and scoring 3 TDs. Kemp completed 6-of-15 passes for 58 yards but did more damage with his feet by rushing for 97 yards on just 12 carries.

With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 4-5, while Whitworth falls to 5-2. The Cougars head out on the road for their final 2 games of the regular season, first visiting NCAA Division II Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, and then fellow NAIA-member Webber International University in Babson Park, Fla.