FARGO, N.D. –- With an ear-to-ear grin and a sigh of relief, Azusa Pacific head coach Peter Shinnick exclaimed in his not-so-subtle voice, “That dude is money! He is Mr. Clutch.”
“That dude” is senior Mike Betancourth, one of the best place kickers in all of college football, who banged home a 42-yard field goal with less than 4 minutes left in regulation to lift the NAIA’s No. 10-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 34-31 come-from-behind victory over No. 18 Valley City State, Thursday night in the Fargo Dome.
The victory clinches Azusa Pacific’s third straight NAIA playoff berth and its sixth in the past 8 years, but it didn’t come without plenty of sweat and nerve-wracking moments.
Valley City State, which was looking to avenge a 62-point loss to the Cougars last year, appeared to be well on its way toward retaliation, parlaying 4 Cougar first-half turnovers into 24 points and a 31-17 halftime lead. After Betancourth opened the game with a 41-yard field goal, Valley City came back to return a fumble 9 yards for a score, return an interception 41 yards for another TD, and then translated 2 more Cougar fumbles into short-drive scores and 10 more points.
“Our defense played lights out from the first snap of the game,” said Shinnick. “Unfortunately our offense gave them 24 points and put us in bind. I told the guys at halftime, that if they could hang on to the ball, we’d be fine and could come back to win.”
Junior running back Marcus Lampkin tied Christian Okoye’s single-game school records of 248 rushing yards on 40 carries to lead a Cougar offense that threw the ball just 14 times all night including a mere 2 in the second half.
“They were concerned about our speed on the rug,” said Shinnick, “so defensively they opened the game in a cover-2 shell. I decided we were going to run the ball until they came out of it. They never did.”
The result was 14th 200-yard rushing game by a Cougar in program history. Lampkin, whose previous personal best was 112 yard vs. Humboldt State earlier this year, scored one TD, a 13-yard scamper midway through the second quarter that made the score 28-17 at the time.
“Marcus was a warrior tonight,” said Shinnick. “He started the game slow with a fumble and was pretty irritated with himself. But he battled and responded to the challenge.”
The Cougars scored on their first 2 drives of the second half to knot the score at 31-31 and change the complexion of the game. Sophomore James Keeler barrowed in from a yard out to make it a 31-24 affair before junior running back A.J. Schmitke scored his first TD of the season on a 10-yard run to tie the game with just over 7 minutes left in the third quarter.
“I challenged our offense at halftime to find out how tough and how physical they could be,” said Shinnick. “This game was a lot like our season. We started 0-2 and could have hung our head, but we didn’t and now we’re in the playoffs, because tonight we didn’t hang our head in this game. We battled back.”
The Cougar defense took center stage inthe second half until Lampkin engineered a Cougar drive by darting through Viking defender and using a face-mask call to put the ball at the VCSU 25-yard line. The rest was up to Betancourth, who converted his fifth straight field goal of 39 yards or longer and his 13th of 17 attempts of the season.
“Mike is such a terrific weapon for us,” said Shinnick.
Azusa Pacific finished with 290 yards worth of offense, all on the ground (Cougar QBs Rudy Carlton and Sean Davis were a combined 4-for-14 for zero yards). Valley City State, which lost its lead running back Ryan Drinkwater to an injury in the first quarter, was held to just 221 yards in total offense. Four QB sacks, including 2 by All-American LB Stephen Holte contributed to the Vikings’ paltry 54 rushing yards.
The loss bumped Valley City State out of playoff contention and ends the Vikings’ season at 7-3. Azusa Pacific, playing in its first-ever indoor game, improves to 6-3 and now waits word from the NAIA national office as to who and where the Cougars will play in the first round of the NAIA playoffs, Saturday, Nov. 19. The 16-team field and first-round pairings are released Sunday, Nov. 13.