PUYALLUP, Wash. -- Dangling by a thread over the edge of defeat for nearly 45 minutes, Azusa Pacific, amazingly pulled itself from the depths to produce a thrilling 44-42 triple-overtime victory over NCAA Division III No. 9-ranked Pacific Lutheran, Saturday afternoon. With the game on the line in what was or could have been the waning moments of the game, the Cougars rallied from 1-touchdown deficits 4 different times before coming up with a game-winning play.
"This is the most unbelievable thing I've seen," said Cougar coach Peter Shinnick shortly after the game. "What what we saw today was a team that believed in itself and never gave up. We showed a lot of resilience out there."
Azusa Pacific had to score 2 TDs in the final 3 minutes of regulation to assure overtime and then had to answer PLU scores in the first and third overtimes while overcoming a fumble in the second OT that nearly allowed PLU to win the game. In addition, the Cougars had to produce some clutch efforts, and none was more astonishing than what proved to be the game-winning score. Down 42-36, Azusa Pacific faced a do-or-die fourth-and-one situation at the PLU 16-yard line after 3 consecutive rushes collected 9 yards. Instead of a fourth straight rush, however, Cougar QB Luke Winslow rolled out and found redshirt freshman tight end Ricky Burgan all alone in the end zone for a touchdown. The Cougars converted the subsequent 2-point attempt and escaped the Pacific Northwest with the exhilarating victory.
"We were hoping that everyone in the stadium was expecting a run," commented Shinnick of his courageous call for Winslow's pass to Burgan. "(Quarterback coach) Michael Owens looked at me said I was either going to be a hero or a goat. But putting the ball in Luke Winslow's hands with the game on the edge is not a bad thing."
Sharing hero honors with Shinnick, Winslow and Burgan was sophomore running back Ben Buys, who, playing in only his second football game in the past 3 seasons, scored 4 TDs (1 shy of the school record), and converted a pair of 2-point conversions, including his last one that propelled the Cougars to the improbable win. Time and again Buys led the Cougars' rescue effort. There would have never been an overtime had it not been for his 5-yard TD blast with 18 seconds left in regulation followed by his own 2-point conversion that knotted the score at 29-29. He then scored on Azusa Pacific's opening play of the first OT, a 25-yard sprint up the middle that tied the game again at 36-36. And though his fumble in the second extra frame nearly cost the Cougars the game, he made amends with the game deciding 2-pointer. Buys finished with his first-ever 100-yard rushing game, registering a game-high 185 yards on 35 carries.
"We rode Ben all game and lived with him," said Shinnick. "He played at a whole new level, and people are going to take notice of this performance."
For three-and-a-half quarters the game was a defensive struggle between a pair of west coast powers that had battled to a 14-14 tie. However, when pressure mounted, the 2 teams responded with a combined 30 points on 4 touchdowns in the final 6 minutes of regulation. PLU capped a 10-play, 63-yard drive with an Aaron Binger 8-yard TD run with 5:54 remaining to give the Lutes their first lead of the day at 21-14. The Cougars answered by going 80 yards on 6 plays, thanks in part to a 62-yard Winslow-to-Nate Farris pass that put the ball at the PLU 1-yard line. Buys did the rest with a 1-yard dive to knot the score at 21-21 with 2:58 left. PLU turned right around and covered 65 yards on 6 plays to retake the lead on Brian Deely's 5-yard TD reception from the arm of Tyler Teeple. The Cougars appeared to catch a break when the snap on the PAT sailed through the hands of the holder. However, place kicker Dave Weller picked up the loose ball and snuck around end for an unplanned 2-point conversion and a seemingly insurmountable 29-21 Lute lead with 1:22 left in the game. Yet, undaunted by the misfortune, Azusa Pacific marched 60 yards needing just 7 plays and 64 seconds to answer with another Buys' TD, this one from 5 yards out. Forced to answer PLU's 2-point advantage, the Cougars met the challenge with a Buys blast up the middle to knot the score at 29-29 and force OT.
"Really, PLU getting the inadvertent 2-point conversion was advantageous for us," said Shinnick. "Since we were forced into going for 2, we gained some insight as to what could be done in OT, and we ran the same play to win the game that we did to tie the game at the end of regulation."
In the opening OT, PLU came up big, converting a fourth-and-goal at the Cougar 2-yard line into a Teeple TD run and a 36-29 cushion. But as they had been doing in the closing moments of regulation, the Cougars again answered, wasting no time with a 25-yard Buys' TD run on their first play of OT.
The Cougars had the ball to open the second OT and drove to the PLU 15-yard line before Buys fumbled away the ball on the third play. With the door open to victory, PLU's offense pushed to a first-and-goal at the Cougar 10-yard line. The Cougar defense, which had already been on the field for 88 plays, had enough grit left to stop the drive at the 5-yard line and force PLU into a field goal attempt. The Lutes are notorious for their "go-for-it" attitude on fourth down and last year attempted just 2 fields goals during their entire 11-game campaign, making one. The lack of opportunity bit the Lutes this time as Weller badly missed from 22 yards out, keeping the game tied at 36-36 and forcing a third OT.
PLU opened the third and final OT with the ball and scored on the fourth play on a Mike Ramirez plunge from a yard out. Forced by rule to attempt a 2-point conversion, Teeples' pass attempt sailed out of the end zone, keeping the Lute lead at 42-36 and setting up the Winslow-Burgan-Buys heroics on Azusa Pacific's next and final possession.
"I'm really excited and really exhausted," said a smiling Shinnick, who has seen similar fantastic finishes in Azusa Pacific victories over Redlands (59-52) in 1999 and Cal Lutheran (54-51) in 2000. "Actually, when PLU scored to go up 29-21 with 1:22 left, Luke (Winslow) turned to me and said, 'All right, it's Cal Lutheran all over again.'" (Azusa Pacific scored on the final play of that game, a Winslow pass to Kevin Carlson as time expired).
This was Azusa Pacific's second-ever overtime game in the program's 38-year history. In Shinnick's 1999 debut as Azusa Pacific's head coach, the Cougars managed a 26-19 one-overtime victory over University of San Diego.
Azusa Pacific accumulated 451 yard in total offense, and for the second straight game, used a balanced attack to produce the hefty numbers. Winslow was 12-for-21 passing for 234 yards while the Cougar ground game churned 217 yards. PLU was just as balanced with its whopping 612 yards of total offense (304 rushing, 308 passing).
With the victory the Cougars are 2-0, a first since their 1999 NAIA Final Four season. PLU, which in last year's season-opener let a 21-0 lead slip into a 31-27 loss at Azusa Pacific, falls to 0-1 to open the new season.