The NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Montana Tech used a powerful and shifty running game and some timely passing to build a 17-point lead and then held on for dear life as the Orediggers upset No. 9 Azusa Pacific 24-17 in the first round of the NAIA Football Championship Series.
With the victory, the Orediggers’ first-ever playoff road win in 6 tries, Montana Tech advances to the quarterfinals where it will likely meet 3-time defending national champion and fellow Frontier Conference mate Carroll College next Saturday (Nov. 26) in Helena, Mont.
Montana Tech ran all over Azusa Pacific in the early going, using running backs Teague Egan and Josh Johnson who combined for 233 rushing yards on 47 carries to not only move the ball like few have before on the Cougar defense, but to also keep the ball out of the Cougars’ hands. Eagn was named the game’s offensive MVP after registering 130 yards on 30 carries and 1 TD, a 3-yard blast the capped a 13-play 73-yard second-half opening drive that put the Orediggers up 24-7 at the time and chewed up nearly 7 minutes of the clock.
“That was an agonizing series to watch,” said Cougar coach Peter Shinnick. “Our defense has been good all year at coming up with a play to stop a drive, but we could not get them off the field.
Azusa Pacific rallied to within a touchdown and had the ball first-and-10 at the Oredigger 22-yard line with 40 seconds left to play. However, the Cougars misfired on 4 straight passes and Montana Tech escaped with the victory.
“We just got started way too late,” said Shinnick. “We were too flat in the first half.”
After Montana Tech opened up its 17-point lead, junior QB Rudy Carlton jump-started a stagnant Cougar offense late in the third quarter by airing out a 41-yard bomb to Jeremy Lugbill. Carlton also had 14-yard completions to Lugbill and TE Ricky Burgan that eventually set up a 3-yard TD run by James Keeler.
“Once we hit the deep ball, everything opened up for us on offense,” said Shinnick, “but it was too late.”
Indeed, the Cougars tallied 257 of their 301 yards of total offense over the final 22 minutes of the game. Azusa Pacific pulled to within a TD when Mike Betancourth capped a 69-yard drive with a 27-yard field goal. Carlton completed passes of 13, 21 and 24 yards on the drive.
Tech tried to put the game away on the ensuing drive, but Dan Klecker, who earlier this year kicked an NAIA season-best 55-yard field goal, was short from 44 yards, giving the Cougars the ball one last time at the Azusa Pacific 27-yard line. Carlton completed 4 more passes to put the ball deep into Oredigger territory with under a minute to play. But the Montana Tech defense, which was stout in the first half, put together one last stand in the final 40 seconds to hang on for the victory.
Montana Tech QB Aaron Johnson completed 10-of-16 passes for 104 yards and 2 second-quarter touchdowns, a 4-yard toss to TE Craig Tippett and a 29-yard strike to WR Kris Anderson, to put the Orediggers up 17-7 at halftime.
However, it was running of Teague and Johnson that did in the Cougars. Johnson finished with 103 yards on 17 carries, including 60 yards in the first half alone.
“They came after it,” said Cougar LB Steve Holte who was named the game’s defensive MVP after record 14 tackles to go along with a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery. “After the initial contact the seemed to lean for extra yards, and we didn’t push back.”
Montana Tech improves to 9-3 on the season while Azusa Pacific finishes at 6-4.