HELENA, Mont. -- Mother nature may be tough, and perhaps she should be feared, but not on this day, not in this venue. Not when there is this much at stake.
In fact, in this 3-foe winner-take-all battle, Mature Nature, no matter how hard she tried, and she did give it her all, faded, folded and finished a distant third. Azusa Pacific, home to palm trees, a warm breeze and blue seas and certainly out of its element, nonetheless was a close second. Carroll, college football’s second winningest program over the past decade, was the overall winner, but it took some time to determine.
Playing on a rock-hard ground, in 5-degree temperature and a steady snowfall throughout the entire game, the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Carroll produced a crucial turnover, and then connected on a big-play to finally put away Azusa Pacific, 35-21, in the opening round of the NAIA Championship Playoff Series in a snow-blanketed Nelson Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The pre-game talk was all about the elements. The postgame chatter, however, was all about the play. Each team punched and counter-punched so often that the minus-9-degree wind-chill factor became a afterthought in the wake of both offenses that moved the ball and defenses that delivered bone-rattling hits.
"I think most people thought the elements would hold us back but our guys played a hard four quarters in 5-degree weather with snow falling in their face the whole time,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Victor Santa Cruz. “Our guys battled and played great."
In the end, it was a pair of touchdown bombs to Corey Peterson, the first one 50 yards and the second one 42 yards, and the running of John Camino that proved to be the difference – not the snow, not the cold, not the elements.
Azusa Pacific, which understandably took the high brow jokes from natives about playing in the snow and cold, put a hush to the laughing when the Cougars took the opening drive and shoved the ball downfield, going 80 yards on 12 plays in nearly 10 minutes to score the game’s first TD on a John van den Raadt 2-yard quarterback sneak. In 3 previous trips to Carroll, Azusa Pacific had never scored a first half TD in Nelson Stadium, but the California boys proved that their intent this time would be different, and snow and cold would not be a factor.
Carroll answered, and in a way that would be fitting for a program that has won 5 NAIA crowns in the past 8 years. The Saints returned the ensuing kickoff 31 yards into Cougar territory at the 48-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage Camino took the ball and raced 32 yards to the 16. Three plays later and less than 4 minutes after the Cougar score, Camino blasted into the end zone to knot the score at 7-all. Game on!
If Carroll had a perimeter running game it certainly wasn’t going to test it on the snowy Nelson Stadium turf. The Cougars proved on their second possession that cutting, stopping and reversing were impossible to accomplish on the slick surface. So the Saints ran between the tackles, and Camino, and his back-up Chance Demaris, racked up the yards. On the second possession, Carroll rumbled 89 yards, rushing the ball on 7 of 8 plays, capped by Camino’s 1-yard burst to put the Saints up 14-7.
Azusa Pacific put a little dazzle back in the offensive play, parlaying a short punt into another TD. On third-and-4 at the Saint 19-yard line, van den Raadt hit Jeremiah Andujo over the middle for a 18-yard pick-up and a first-and-goal at the Carroll 1-yard line. Johnell Murphy snuck through a hole on the next play and by midway through the second quarter, Carroll and Azusa Pacific had already combined for more points in this game than they had in the classic clash in the 2004 NAIA semifinal, which was played on a perfect field in much better weather conditions (Carroll won 14-10).
Early in the game, Carroll detected something it could exploit in the Cougar secondary when Wagner connected with a wide-open Demarais for a 34-yard pick-up. Midway through the second quarter, the Saints did it again, and Wagner found a wide-open Corey Peterson at the Cougar 15-yard line to highlight a 50-yard catch-and-run TD that put Carroll up 21-14 at halftime.
Realizing Carroll was not going to offer any misdirection runs or run to the outside, Azusa Pacific adjusted its defensive scheme at halftime, and the Cougar defensive front held the Saint ground game to just 13 yards on the first 6 carries of the second half, which included stopping Carroll on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.
Likewise, the Saint defense made adjustments that included more blitzing of van den Raadt. Midway through the third quarter, van den Raadt countered with a screen pass to David Trifeletti who weaved and dodged his way up the middle to the Carroll 5-yard line. Two plays later, van den Raadt hit freshman RB Chris Kilmer on a 6-yard flare pass to tie the game at 21-21.
A constant thorn in the Cougar side all season stung Azusa Pacific again when Carroll’s Ryan Egan took the ensuing kickoff and raced 76 yards along the left side to score and put the Saints back up 28-21 with just under 7 minutes left in the third quarter.
Azusa Pacific, which continually found holes in the NAIA’s No. 5 rushing defense of Carroll, went back to work, this time relying on Trifeletti who could hit the corners and balance the Cougar attack between Murphy’s runs up the middle.
“I was surprised at how well we ran the ball on them, said Murphy, “but our o-line got a lot of push on them and we took advantage of the holes.
When the drive appeared to have stalled at the Cougar 43-yard line, Santa Cruz pulled out a trick play and called on freshman punter Paul Vanderwulp take the long snap, run to his right, and loft a perfectly-placed ball to Jeremy Turner for a 19-yard pick-up and a new set of downs at the Saint 38. The ground game gave way to an aerial attack in which van den Raadt hit Aaron Wall over the middle for a 19-yard gain followed by a 17-yard catch-and-run to Murphy to put the ball at the Saint 4-yard line. Again, the Cougars were knocking on the door, looking to tie the game for a fourth time, and on third-and-goal at the one, Murphy had a clear lane to the end zone off an option pitch. Van den Raadt’s toss was a little behind, and Murphy momentarily bobbled the ball long enough to allow the Saints to pummel him and separate him from the ball. Carroll recovered the loose ball at the 6.
“I saw the end zone, and I guess I just lost concentration on the ball,” said Murphy. “I was still trying to pull it in when they hit me, and I thought I landed on it. But when I rolled over, I saw it to my left and I couldn’t get there fast enough.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Carroll put a Cougar comeback out of reach by climbing out of a second-and-26 hole, first with a 10-yard Wagner run, and with a third down 50-yard TD bomb from Wagner to Peterson, who once again was wide open and trotted in the final 15 yards untouched for the eighth and final TD of the game with 2:46 left to play.
Azusa Pacific made a last-gasp attempt for a miracle comeback when van den Raadt connected on a 49-yard pass to junior WR Matt Davis, who made a circus one-handed catch down the right sideline, going down at the Saint 6-yard line. The Cougars couldn’t cash in though and turned the ball over on downs. The Saints ran out the final 1:29 of the game to clinch their 11th straight NAIA first-round playoff victory.
Senior LB Jay York, who never missed a game in his 42-game Cougar career, played his best game of the season, registering a game-high 13 tackles.
Camino finished with 130 rushing yards on 21 carries, and Peterson had 4 receptions for 118 yards. The 2 Saints were named the game’s offensive co-MVPs.
Murphy finished with 94 rushing yards. Van den Raadt went 13-for-20 passing for 181 yards. Davis, in his first game in 5 weeks, collected 4 catches for 70 yards.
Azusa Pacific finished with 333 yards total offense. Carroll produced 404.
“This is a very good football team,” said Santa Cruz. “We’re relatively young with a lot of sophomores and juniors, and this experience will only help to make them better.”
With the setback, Azusa Pacific, which was making its seventh playoff appearance in the past 13 years, has its season come to an end at 6-4. Carroll takes an 11-0 record into next weeks quarterfinal game against Marian College of Indiana.