In a game in which neither team enjoyed more than touchdown advantage throughout the night, DSC scored early in the fourth quarter and then again late in the frame, using a pair of midfield drives to overcome a 23-16 deficit and post its first-ever victory over Azusa Pacific 3 meetings.
“It was a great game,” said Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “Unfortunately it’s been a tough season because you’re dealing with so many close losses. Programmatically, we don’t have much margin for error. When you don’t make the plays that we failed to make tonight, teams like this won’t let you miss.”
Senior quarterback Dexter Hill threw for 1 TD and ran for another, the game-winner on a 5-yard bootleg with 5:27 remaining, to lead DSC. Hill accounted for 337 of Dixie’s 435 yards of total offense, completing 20-of-34 passes for 241 yards while rushing for another 95 yards on 14 carries.
Time and again, Hill escaped near sacks with some quick work of his feet, turning near disastrous plays into big gainers. Perhaps no Houdini trick was bigger then on a third-and-10 play Hill escaped the clutches of a Cougar lineman and ran 20 yards up the middle to the Azusa Pacific 2-yard line. On the next play, Teddy Owens barreled into the end zone to cap a 10-play, 50-yard drive and tie the game at 23-23 with 13:42 remaining.
On its next drive, which began at its own 43-yard line after Azusa Pacific failed to convert on a fourth-and-3 play, DSC 52 yards on 8 plays with Hill completing 4 passes to put the ball at the Cougar 5-yard line for and third-and-1 play. Hill called his own number and sprinted around left end and beat to Cougar defenders to the corner of the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning TD.
Azusa Pacific came back on its next drive, and after Chris Brown collected 19 of his game-high 148 rushing yards on a carry that put the ball back in DSC territory, the Cougars appeared to be headed for the game-tying TD when freshman QB John van den Raadt tossed a perfect strike down the far sideline to a wide open Jon Davis who instead dropped the perfectly placed ball, allowing Dixie State to escape. The Cougars eventually punted, and Hill then connected with Judd Thompson on a 39-yard pass play to convert a third-and-17, which in turn clinched the victory as DSC ran out the clock.
“Defensively, we gave up a lot of big plays,” said Santa Cruz, “and the timing of those plays was on third downs. That’s unfortunate. We’re close. You misfire and it really costs us big.”
After a shaky start in which he misfired on 9 of his first 10 passes, van den Raadt settled into a grove and completed 14-of-33 for 166 yards and a TD. His 14-yard scramble up the middle to score his first-ever collegiate TD gave Azusa Pacific a 13-6 lead with 2:29 left in the first half. His 45-yard over-the-middle strike to Jame Burke for his longest pass completion of the year, set up a 4-yard TD toss to Davis which put Azusa Pacific up 20-16 midway through the third quarter.
Punter Corey Lenahan was forced back into place kicking duties after Ben Hansen aggravated a hip flexor on a kickoff following his 42-yard field goal that opened the game’s scoring. In his stead, Lenahan banged through the uprights 35- and 47-yard field goals, the second one giving Azusa Pacific a 23-16 lead as the third quarter closed.
The Cougars were victimized by critical mistakes and some odd penalties. Senior DL Matt Johnson was flagged for a questionable late hit on Hill on third down. Dixie retained possession and scored the game’s first TD to assume a 6-3 lead after Sal Gutierrez blocked the PAT.
Davis then had a 10-yard TD reception waved off for pass interference, forcing the Cougars to eventually settle for a field goal instead.
Late in the first half, the Cougars were flagged for too many men on the field for a Dixie punt, a 15-yarder that kept the ball in DSC hands and resulted in a 46-yard field goal as time expired on the first half, reducing the Cougar advantage to 13-9 at the break.
“I’m not going to bad-mouth the officials, but we knew we had 11 men on the field,” said Santa Cruz.
Finally, late in the fourth quarter as the Cougars were attempting to tie the game with a TD, Burke clearly caught a van den Raadt pass 2 yards past the first-down marker but officials marked the ball a yard shy of the first down, forcing Azusa Pacificto punt the ball from its own 49-yard line with 4 minutes remaining.
Senior LB Brian Casey finished the game with 12 tackles while Gutierrez added a career-high 10 take-downs which included 1.5 for loss.
With the victory Dixie State improves to 3-6 overall, while Azusa Pacific falls to 1-7. The Cougars are home again next week when they host NCAA Division II No. 5-ranked Central Washington University in a 6 p.m. game.