AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific did its job, and now its postseason fate lies in the hands of the NAIA Rating Committee. The Cougars, ranked No. 14 in the NAIA, disposed of NCAA Division III Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.), 20-14, in the regular season finale for both teams. As result Azusa Pacific is likely to receive its fourth bid into the NAIA Playoff Series in the past 5 years when the 16-team field and first-round pairings are announced Sunday (Nov. 17) afternoon.
However, nothing is guaranteed, much the like the decision in tonight’s game.
The outcome wasn’t determined until the final minute of play when the Azusa Pacific defense, which had several impressive stops on the night, came up the with the biggest one of the season by keeping the Gusties out of the end zone on 4 successive plays inside the Cougar 10-yard line.
“Holy cow, that was a thrill,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Peter Shinnick immediately after the game. Those guys on our defense are unbelievable. “We stick them in a hole time and again against a very balanced Gustavus offense, and to limit them to just 1 touchdown is really amazing.”
After leading most of the game, Gustavus found itself down 20-14 early in the fourth quarter but had one last chance to rally for the victory when it assumed its final possession at its own 33-yard line with 3:42 remaining in the game. The Golden Gusties drove 59 yards on 8 plays to set up a first-and-goal situation at the Azusa Pacific 8-yard line with just over a minute to play. After an unsuccessful run up the middle and an incomplete pass, Gustavus nearly scored the game-tying touchdown when quarterback Sean Smith hit Ryan Hoag a 2 yards into the end zone. However, Cougar safety Louis Jamison jarred the ball loose before Hoag could establish possession and the ball was batted out of the end zone with 51 seconds left in the game.
“I thought about going for the pick,” Jamison described about the play. “But I thought, ‘no, play it smart,’ and I saw the ball in his hands and went for the hands. Indeed, this was one of the most thrilling moments of my career to have a big play like that.”
On fourth down, Smith attempted to connect with Brett Boese on a corner fade into the end zone, but Boese’s feet tangled with Cougar cornerback Jamil Frazier and both fell to the ground as the ball sailed away with Gustavus’ final hopes.
“I thought he (Boese) was running an out, so I jumped it,” said Frazier, “and right as he turned around, we ran into each other. It was the longest second in my life. It was a good no call, just good football.”
Good enough football to give Azusa Pacific a victory similar to 5 such victories it had during its 1998 championship run when the outcome wasn’t decided until the final minute of the game.
“We knew they had to throw the ball in those situations,” Shinnick added, “and (defensive coordinator) Sean (Rochelle) did a great job of mixing up between man and zone coverage and let our guys rush.”
The final defensive stand was just 1 of 3 such stops in the second half in which Gustavus had the ball first down inside the Cougar 35-yard line and did not score. With less than 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Azusa Pacific stopped a Gustavus drive on downs at the 38-yard line. Then early in the fourth quarter after a Hoeg kickoff return gave the Golden Gusties great field position at the Cougar 44-yard line, Azusa Pacific stuffed that drive at its own 22-yard line.”
Azusa Pacific took an early 6-0 lead when quarterback Luke Winslow capped the Cougars’ opening drive of the game with a 34-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Frankie Tapia. Gustavus answered when it blocked a punt on Azusa Pacific’s next possession. Tyler Ringquist scooped the loose ball and sprinted 30 yards into the end zone to give Gustavus a 7-6 lead.
Matt Ryburn, whose PAT was blocked on Azusa Pacific’s opening TD, redeemed himself with a 21-yard field goal midway through the second quarter to give the Cougars a 9-6 advantage. However, Gustavus took a 14-9 lead into the locker room at halftime when Smith capped an excellent 17-play, 80-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Pelant with 45 seconds left in the first half.
Azusa Pacific then took the lead for good after Winslow hit speedster Nate Farris on a 33-yard touchdown pass that put the Cougars up 17-14 at the 7:39 mark of the third quarter. The Cougars nearly handcuffed themselves out of the drive with 3 holding penalties that actually forced them to accumulate 107 yards on the 10-play drive. Winslow completed 5 straight passes for 96 yards, including the strike to Farris, the ninth time this season the 2 hooked up for a score.
“Nate always seems to find a way to come up with the big play,” said Shinnick, “but the one that was even bigger was his fourth-down catch on our next possession when he got hit in the shin and kept on going to set up our last field goal.”
A Ryburn 26-yard boot less than 2 minutes into the fourth quarter padded the Azusa Pacific lead to set up the game’s climatic ending.
“This was a sense of urgency,” said Azusa Pacific defensive end Nick Tavaglione as he reflected on Azusa Pacific’s defensive stand at the end of the game. “Our backs were to the wall. If they scored, we lose and our season is done. That’s the sense of urgency we’ll have the rest of the season.”
Winslow completed 18-of-26 passes for 249 yards and 2 TDs. Tapia had a game-high 7 receptions for 124 yards, while Farris finished with 4 grabs for 58 yards. Sophomore running back Ben Buys rushed for 119 hard yards on 25 carries to lead the Cougar ground game.
Smith, who came into the game completing 67% of his passes, was 18-for-30 for 167 yard to lead the Gustavus offense. Hoag had 6 catches for 53 yards. The Cougar defense held Gustie running back Andy Traetow, who entered the game averaging 125 yards a game and 6.1 yards a carry, to just 79 yards on 22 carries (3.6 avg.).
“Gustavus played great,” said Shinnick. “They were very disciplined, well-coached and played hard-nose football. They did a good job of jumping the flats where we like to throw. We just had to be patient, and Luke (Winslow) did a good job.”
Coming into the game, the Cougars’ playoff formula appeared to be simple—win and they’re in. However, in a matter of hours throughout the day, the entire NAIA playoff picture was jolted as teams that were seemingly on the outside of the playoff picture secured berths with upset wins, leaving the Cougars’ playoff hopes less than absolute even if they defeated Gustavus. The Cougars must now sit and wait for about 14 hours before they will know their postseason activities.
“We’re excited to continue,” said Shinnick. “Let’s get it going. I think playing a team like Gustavus gets us ready for the postseason. They were an out-of-the-area team that we didn’t know much about and we had to play well to beat them. I’m glad we won’t see them in the playoffs.”
With the win Azusa Pacific improves to 9-1, a first in Cougar football history. Gustavus’ season ends at 6-4.