ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- The NAIA's No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific gave up a pair of big plays to Lindenwood (Mo.) when it hurt the most, seeing a late 31-24 lead erased in the final three minutes of regulation on a 44-yard punt return and an 82-yard bomb as Lindenwood rallied for a 38-31 victory over the Cougars.
True freshman RB Terrel Watson rushed for a career-high 121 yards, his first 100-yard game as a collegiate back, and he scored back-to-back touchdowns just over two minutes apart midway through the fourth quarter to give Azusa Pacific its only lead of the afternoon, 31-24, with 6:39 to play.
“When you play great teams like that, you have to be able to take care of all the details,” Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “Lindenwood did a good job on the defensive line, but our offensive line was able to adjust to what they were doing and really get our run game going. Getting Terrel Watson going downhill was a key for us. He did an outstanding job, and the offensive line really picked things up in the second half and began to assert themselves.”
The Cougar defense drove Lindenwood back on a three-and-out series on the ensuing possession, but pinned deep in its own territory, Azusa Pacific also went three-and-out to force a punt from its own 10-yard line. The Lions' punt returner Therman McGowan fielded a low, short punt at the Cougar 44-yard line and raced untouched into the end zone to tie the game at 31-31 with 2:36 remaining.
Senior kick returner Justin Jones, who fumbled a second-quarter punt that led to a Lindenwood TD that put the Lions up 17-10 at halftime, brought back the ensuing kickoff 30 yards to the Azusa Pacific 42-yard line, giving the Cougar offense a short field for a potential go-ahead score with 2:29 remaining. After Watson was stuffed on third-and-two at the 50-yard line, the Cougars elected to pin Lindenwood deep in their own territory with a pooch punt from senior QB John van den Raadt.
Two plays later, Lindenwood was back in the end zone when QB John Uribe found WR Andrew Helmick behind the Cougar secondary for an 82-yard TD pass that put the Lions back on top, 38-31, with just 29 seconds to play. Azusa Pacific got 59 of the 84 yards it needed on the final drive, but senior WR Matt Davis lost a fumble at the end of an 11-yard reception to the Lindenwood 25 on the game's final play.
Van den Raadt had perhaps his best all-around game of the season, rushing for exactly 100 yards on 14 carries while completing 13-of-20 passes for 168 yards, rushing and throwing for scores against a 6-2 Lindenwood squad that had won its two other games against NAIA competition this season by an average score of 64-13. Junior TB Johnell Murphy added 52 yards on 15 carries, helping the Cougars to 283 yards rushing on the day.
Azusa Pacific played from behind for most of the contest, although the Cougars only trailed by more than seven points for less than three minutes. After Lindenwood marched 89 yards on seven plays on its opening second-half possession, van den Raadt marched the offense 70 yards on six plays, completing both of his pass attempts to Davis for 35 yards on the drive before Watson barreled for 27 yards and 12 yards on back-to-back carries to set up van den Raadt’s one-yard scoring run that cut the lead to 24-17 with 6:12 remaining in the third quarter.
From that point on, the Azusa Pacific defense shut down the next five Lindenwood drives, forcing four three-and-outs along with a fumble that set up the Cougars’ go-ahead score, a four-yard Watson TD run, with 6:39 remaining in the game. Barely two minutes earlier, Watson rumbled for a 24-yard game-tying touchdown, knotting the score at 24-24 with 8:42 to play.
Azusa Pacific entered the game a perfect 39-of-39 in red-zone scoring chances, and Eric DeLira’s 25-yard field goal with 5:46 left in the opening quarter tied the game at 3-3 and extended the Cougars’ red-zone success to 40 possessions. However, another 25-yard attempt on the opening play of the second quarter was blocked, and what would have been a 31-yard try early in the fourth quarter never got off the ground due to a bad snap that forced holder Matt Davis into a scrambling incompletion.
“When you’re playing a good team, the special teams becomes the x-factor,” Santa Cruz said, “and we have some things we need to shore up.”
Lindenwood followed the second-quarter block with a 12-play, 90-yard drive that ended with Denodus O’Bryant’s six-yard scoring run that gave the Lions a 10-3 lead, but van den Raadt tied the game at 10-10 on the ensuing seven-play, 79-yard drive with a 42-yard TD pass to freshman WR Tanner Henry with 6:56 to play in the second quarter. With just over a minute left in the first half, a Lindenwood punt was muffed by Jones, and the Lions fell on the fumble at the Cougar 12-yard line. It took four plays, but Lindenwood punched in the go-ahead score on a one-yard McGowan plunge with 12 seconds left in the half, giving the Lions a 17-10 halftime edge.
“We’re a good football team, and we obviously had to battle a great football team today,” Santa Cruz said. “We felt like we had a chance to win the game, but special teams in the end turned out to be a major factor. We’ll turn the tape on and get back to work, and we’ll find a few little moments from today where we’ll realize we could have changed this game.”
McGowan was the leading rusher for Lindenwood, carrying 14 times for 47 yards for a Lion offense that was held to just 72 yards rushing. The Lions found more success through the air, as Uribe threw for 313 yards on 21-of-35 passing, connecting for two touchdowns including the game-winning 82-yard bomb to Helmick, who finished with game-highs of seven catches for 137 yards.
Uribe was intercepted late in the first quarter in Azusa Pacific territory by Spencer Danielson, who returned it 49 yards into the red-zone where the ensuing field-goal try ended up being blocked. Kory Johnson was the Cougars’ leading tackler with 10, and senior DE Jake Jones registered a sack for the sixth time in the past seven games. Two of Jones’ four tackles were for loss.
The loss snaps Azusa Pacific's six-game winning streak, and the Cougars fall to 6-2 on the season heading into next week's Homecoming matchup with fellow NAIA independent Southern Oregon.