AZUSA, Calif. – The longer this season goes, the more one has to believe that Azusa Pacific is charmed. Even Mother Nature lends a hand for these Cougars.
The NAIA’s No. 20-ranked Azusa Pacific held on for a 20-13 victory over Western New Mexico, and a 15-minute rainstorm, the first October downpour on a home Cougar game in at least 25 years, may have very well preserved Azusa Pacific’s lead as well as the Cougars hopes for an NAIA playoff berth.
After rallying to within a point at 14-13 by converting successive field goals, the Mustangs squandered away any chance of winning by fumbling the ball on all 3 of their fourth-quarter possessions, including 2 inside Cougar territory.
After Azusa Pacific assumed a 14-7 lead on Ricky Burgan’s 3-yard TD catch, the skies opened on Western New Mexico’s ensuing drive, and conveniently after the Mustangs motored to the Cougar 15-yard line. With a wet turf and a wet ball, the drive stalled out, and the Mustangs had to settle for a 25-yard Kevin Hughes’ field goal. On the next drive Hughes banged home a 44-yard field goal in the rain to pull the Mustangs to within a point
A slick ball though may have led to Western then getting a bad case of the fumbles. Following a Mike Betancourth 47-yard field goal that put Azusa Pacific up 17-13, the Mustangs returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to start what they believed would be a go-ahead drive at the Cougar 40-yard line. However, on the first play from scrimmage, RB Lateef Azziz fumbled the ball, and Cougar NG Erik Arevalo pounced on the pigskin.
On its next drive, Western New Mexico needed just 5 plays to go from its own 2-yard line to the Cougar 47. Yet again, the Mustangs couldn’t hang on to the ball and when All-American LB Stephen Holte crushed Mustang QB Kyle Meschnark, the football was once again on the ground and fellow LB Craig Robbins scooped up the loose ball and raced 14 yards down field to set up another Betancourth field goal, this one of 39 yards.
With the game still in its reach, Western New Mexico motored 54 yards on 14 plays during its next possession, only to again give the ball back to Azusa Pacific when holder Jonathan Sheaffer mishandled the snap on an attempted field goal. Cougar LB Clint Shamblin fell on the loose ball.
Junior RB Marcus Lampkin rushed for 111 yards, his fifth straight century game (the first Cougar since NAIA Player of the Year Jack Williams did so in 1999) and 61 of them came following the Shamblin recovery on a game-clinching run with just over 2 minutes left, allowing Azusa Pacific to keep the ball out of Mustang hands and run out the clock.
Lampkin opened the game’s scoring with a 23-yard TD run 9 minutes into play, and it was the only time he would find easy sledding against a physical WNMU defense until his season-best run at the end of the game.
“We knew they were big, fast and physical, and it would be hard to run on them,” said Azusa Pacific mentor Peter Shinnick, who becomes the first Cougar coach to lead Azusa Pacific to 4 straight victories over NCAA Division II schools. “However, if we would have eliminated our special team blunders, and they were huge blunders, then it’s a whole different game.
After Lampkin gave Azusa Pacific the lead, the Cougars gave it right back when Coba Canales muffed a Mustang punt at the Cougar 25-yard line. Six plays later, Meschnark found Jason Allison over the middle for an 11-yard score to knot the game at 7-7, where it stood through halftime.
Junior QB Rudy Carlton, who was making his second straight start, completed 18-of-37 passes, including 9 of his first 10, for 233 yards and 1 TD, the aforementioned 3-yard swing pass to Burgan that put the Cougars up 14-7 on their first drive of the second half.
The Cougar defense, which surrendered 301 on the night, held the Mustangs to just 212 yards through the first 3 quarters before tiring in the fourth. Nonetheless, they kept the heat on Meschnark and produced a season-high 5 QB sacks. Holte finished with a game-high 16 tackles, including 7 in the fourth quarter alone, and had 3 tackles for loss and a sack. Senior DT Chuck Asiodu enjoyed his best game of the season with 10 tackles, 4 of which were for loss.
“Our defense did a great job of applying pressure and coming at Meschnark from all different angles,” said Shinnick. “However, he was very composed for being under the gun all night. He found his people at big times.”
With the victory, the Cougars can take a well-deserved rest having just come through a grueling portion of its schedule. Azusa Pacific takes next week off before returning to the gridiron to host nationally-ranked Eastern Oregon in a crucial game during homecoming festivities Oct. 29.
“We’re beat up,” said Shinnick, “but I’m very thankful to have come out 3-1 against a stretch of Humboldt State, Southern Oregon, Sacramento State and Western New Mexico. We won’t face a more physical set of teams this year.”
The victory pushes Azusa Pacific’s record to 4-3 and combined with No. 17 Eastern Oregon’s loss, it should catapult the Cougars into the lead for a postseason berth among NAIA independents. Western New Mexico falls to 3-4.