APU fared well against North Alabama but lost control at the very end.
The Azusa Pacific football team faced two unfamiliar challenges on Saturday, Sept. 22. The first was a severe thunderstorm that delayed the start of their game against University of North Alabama by two and a half hours—a foreign idea for a team that hails from Southern California. The second was a NCAA Division I [Football Championship Subdivision] football team: the UNA Lions. Unfortunately, the Cougars’ bid to remain undefeated fell short on a buzzer-beating field goal by Lions kicker Chandler Carrera that sealed a 37-35 win for UNA.
However, APU put up an impressive fight. After forcing a quick stop to start the game, the Cougars only needed one play on their first possession to gain an early advantage.
Sophomore quarterback Tyrone Williams Jr. found wide receiver Weston Carr for a 75-yard touchdown to take a 6-0 lead. Williams finished the game 22 for 34 with 401 passing yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions—arguably the most impressive outing of his college career. Victor Santa Cruz, head coach, spoke highly of the sophomore.
“We have a new starting quarterback who is handling challenges well and keeps swinging. The weapons he has are great, and they were making plays tonight against a very athletic football team.”
UNA did not respond until Carrera connected on a 32-yard field goal making it 6-3 with 3:17 remaining in the opening quarter. It was his first of five field goal attempts in the game, and he converted on all of them.
APU’s next possession was interrupted by Lions cornerback Will Singleton who stripped the ball from APU running back Zikel Reddick. Linebacker Christon Taylor recovered the fumble for UNA and returned it 49 yards. A second field goal ensued at the beginning of the second quarter knotting the score at six.
Later in the period, UNA forced another huge turnover as defensive back K.J. Smith intercepted a wayward APU pass. The Lions drove 79 yards on eight plays but a stellar effort in the red zone by the Cougars defense held UNA to another field goal. Their 9-6 lead would carry into halftime.
The Cougars’ offense began the second half the same way they began the first. Williams found Darrell Adams Jr. for a 66-yard touchdown pass. APU converted the extra point and took a 13-9 lead. It was the second lead change of the game—the second of seven.
Unfortunately, turnovers would continue to haunt the Cougars. After the Lions went three-and-out on their next drive, Cougar running back Gavin McDaniel muffed the punt return, setting UNA up for a 34-yard touchdown drive allowing the Lions to take a 16-13 lead.
APU responded quickly marching 74 yards over nine plays on their next drive. The possession concluded with Williams connecting once again with Carr for a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Cougars jumped back in front 20-16. UNA tacked on another field goal before the end of the third quarter, trailing APU 20-19 heading into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, following another costly Cougar turnover—this one a fumble by Williams—the Lions found the end-zone just five seconds into the fourth quarter. UNA quarterback Christian Lopez rushed for a successful two-point conversion making it 27-20 Lions.
Soon after, K.J. Smith’s second interception of the game––and the Cougars’ fifth turnover––thwarted a potential response from APU. UNA extended their lead to 34-20, however, the Cougars were not finished.
Williams found wide receiver Brandon Jackson for a 10-yard touchdown pass bringing the Cougars back within seven at 34-27. After the APU defense forced a quick three-and-out, the offense was back at it with 4:16 left in the game.
The Cougars went 72 yards in exactly three minutes, highlighted by another clutch Jackson touchdown catch. that made the score 34-33. Jackson finished the game with nine receptions for 129 yards leading the team in both categories. His big play left Coach Santa Cruz with a big decision to make: kick the extra point and play for overtime, or go for two and try to win in regulation. He chose the latter.
“The lightning delay already had the game going late, and when we scored that last touchdown we had a lot of momentum,” said Santa Cruz after the game. “On the road, you go for it; you don’t blink, you just go for it.”
Williams found Carr for a two-point conversion that gave the Cougars a 35-34 lead with 1:16 to play. Unfortunately, the Lions quickly marched into field goal range setting up Chandler Carrera for a buzzer-beating 38-yard field goal that sealed the win for UNA.
While Coach Santa Cruz recognized the lessons to be learned from the tough loss, he also acknowledged the positives.
“We have a team with a lot of fight and belief in itself, but tonight’s game showed us that we have to take care of the details even more right now. When you play a Division I school, who has a tradition of being a Division II power, you have to take care of little details.”
Following their first loss of the season, the Cougars will head back home to face Great Northwest Athletic Conference rival Humboldt State on Saturday, Sept. 29.