Azusa Pacific upset the NAIA’s No. 23-ranked Malone College, 28-21, Saturday night before a crowd of 2,123 in the “Canyon City.” Carlton threw for 1 touchdown and rushed for what proved to be the game-winner, while Tupuola picked off a Pioneer pass and returned it 27 yards for an early TD, giving the Cougars momentum and its first lead after 8-plus quarters of play this season.
“We need this ‘W’,” said Tupuola, who finished the game with a season-high 10 tackles while having a hand in 1 of the Cougars’ 6 quarterback sacks. “It’s the best feeling in the world right now.”
Carlton continues to sharpen his game, improving his performance each week. Tonight, he completed a career-high 24 passes of 35 attempts for 237 yards. His 8-yard scoring hook-up with TE James Webster capped the Cougars’ game-opening 10-play, 71-yard drive that knotted the score at 7-7 after Malone had scored on a 60-yard bomb from Billy Bob Orsagh to Derek Deardorff on the fourth play from scrimmage.
Three plays later, Tupuola gave Azusa Pacific its first lead of the game and the season when he ran into an Orsagh shuttle pass at the line of scrimmage and rumbled his 295-pound frame in the opposite direction 27 yards untouched for another TD.
“I was right in the middle of a stunt and my momentum carried me into the ball,” said Tupuola. “When I realized I had the ball I thought to myself ‘run hard, run fast, and secure the ball is someone comes from behind. About 5 yards into it I saw a lane open up and the daylight in front of me. I just kept thinking, ‘get there, get there.’”
“That’s what we’ve been missing the first 2 games,” said Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz, who a year ago picked up his first collegiate win against Malone and now collects his first win of the 2007 campaign at the Pioneers’ expense as well. “We need big plays, and tonight we got them. Fortunately, Darrell’s play came at a very good time for us.”
Azusa Pacific controlled play throughout much of the first half, putting together 3 drives of 60 or more yards in length, including the final one of the first half when the Cougars motored 67 yards in the last 4 minutes highlighted by Ben Hansen’s second field goal of the game, a 19-yarder as time expired to give the Cougars a 20-14 halftime lead. However, the 3 points also came with a healthy dose of controversy.
On the preceding play, a second-and-goal situation at the Malone 4 and with 7 seconds left in the half, Carlton hit Paul Hardiman with a pass at the goal line as the clock struck zero. Hardiman appeared to get the ball into the end zone for a TD but it also appeared he fumbled the ball as he took a hit that bent his leg like a pretzel. Which came first was difficult to determine, so in its place the officials gave the Cougars possession at the 1-yard line and put a second back on the scoreboard, allowing Hansen to tack on another 3 points.
Malone adjusted its defense at halftime and held Azusa Pacific to just 9 yards on the Cougars’ first 2 possessions of the third quarter. Renewed by its defensive play, the Pioneers drove 53 yards in just 2 minutes and took their only lead of the night at 21-20 when Deardorff scored his third TD of the contest on a 5-yard slant route to complete a Dom Liberati pass.
But Azusa Pacific answered on the ensuing drive. After a Trent Sakioka’s 35-yard kickoff return moved the Cougars to their own 45-yard line, Carlton went to work, completing 4 passes, including a picture-perfect toss down the left sideline that All-American candidate Jon Davis hauled in for a 22-yard grab at the Pioneer 1-yard line. Carlton finished off the drive by punching the ball into the endzone. He then connected with Jordan Farrell on a 2-point conversion to push the Cougar advantage to 28-21.
“I’m excited to see Rudy grow,” said Santa Cruz. “He is getting better and better at managing the game and putting the offense in good situations. I’m anxious to keep this going for him.”
Carlton used 8 different receivers for his 24 completions. His favorite target to date had been Davis who had 16 catches in the first 2 games, but he was double-covered most of the night. So Carlton turned to Farrell, who enjoyed his best game as a Cougar, snagging a game-high 9 passes for 62 yards. Davis finished with 6 grabs for 109 yards
“Our offense kept us in there,” said Tupuola. “Rudy is great leader and the true captain of our team.”
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter, though the Cougars knew they were fortunate when Malone fumbled away a good-looking drive and a potential game-tying TD when Liberati and Bernard Payton misfired on a handoff at the Azusa Pacific 15-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Cougar freshman LB Jay York dove on the loose ball to end the Pioneers last good scoring opportunity.
On its next possession, Malone pounded the ball back into Cougar territory to the Azusa Pacific 29, but the Cougars used 2 sacks of Orsagh, including a 13-yard loss on a fourth-down play to stop the drive cold. Azusa Pacific ran out the final 7:13 of the game with a 13-play drive, converting a fourth-and-1 at the Malone 39 to clinch the win.
Senior LB Mac Gebbers tallied a game- and career-high 12 tackles. Junior LB Travis Bengard registered 12 tackles as well to go along with 2 sacks.
“I love our coaching staff, and I’m glad we could give them a victory,” said Tupuola. “They treat us like sons and we look at them like they’re our fathers. We’d do anything for them.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 1-2 while Malone falls to 1-1.