Another week, another blocked kick, another Mavericks’ victory
Well, the first step anyway.
Now it’s up to the NCAA regional ranking committee, but shortly after 3 this afternoon, a nine-year playoff drought for the Colorado Mesa football team should end when the Division II playoff field is announced.
“I don’t think they can hold us back now, no way,” running back David Tann said Saturday after the Mavericks did what they had to do, and in a fashion only they can, securing a 33-24 victory over No. 13 Azusa Pacific in the regular-season finale at Stocker Stadium.
Tann went over 1,000 yards rushing this season. Sean Rubalcaba, the Mavs’ quarterback who came home for his final two years, only to give way to sophomore Eystin Salum midway through the season, played the way he had to to extend his career.
“You never know how much you’ve got left, and that really hit me hard this last week, and having a chance to help our team continue was really special,” Rubalcaba said.
The defense, which has been decimated by injuries all season, came up with some huge stops, none bigger than when Blake Nelson and Zac Owen stopped Azusa quarterback Andrew Elffers for no gain on fourth down with 2½ minutes to play and the Mavs’ season on the line.
“We knew the quarterback likes to run it, and on that one I was coming off the edge and I saw him tuck it, so I had to retrace back, but we knew he wanted to run it and get the ball in his hands,” said Nelson, who led CMU with 13 tackles. “We did a good job containing him for the most part and just like I said, coming up with big stops on fourth down.”
And of course, there was another “are you kidding me?” play on a field goal, when Dustin Rivas, for the second straight week and third time this season, broke through and blocked the kick with 6:14 to play after the Mavericks had regained the lead on Ryan Sheehan’s fourth field goal of the game.
In an instant replay of last week, Antonio Clark gathered the ball at the 20 and out-ran everyone 80 yards for the clinching touchdown.
“You couldn’t write a movie script and have it play in Hollywood and have people believe it,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s just insane.”
With Salum injured, the game belonged to Rubalcaba, who has played at Stocker since he was in middle school. Knowing this was likely his final game in Grand Junction, he threw everything he had into the afternoon, throwing for 172 yards and running for 53 more.
Rubalcaba, Martin said, is a big reason the Mavericks (9-2) should be celebrating this afternoon, one year after being bitterly disappointed.
“Sean is one of the biggest factors that’s helped turn this program, the expectation around the last two years since he’s been here,” Martin said. “Everybody else is buying in. He’s a competitor and a great leader and boy, I tell you what, I’m proud for him and proud of the opportunity this team has.”
The coaching staff knew the Mav tempo offense was going to be critical in wearing down the Azusa Pacific defense since the Cougars came up from sea level to play in Grand Junction. That, though, wasn’t all the coaches planned.
They threw in every wrinkle they could imagine. Kitchen-sink offense, 101.
Receiver sweeps. Throws to the tight end, who lined up in the slot. Quarterback draws. The “Maverick”, aka wildcat, with wide receiver Josh Brown taking direct snaps. Brown even took a double-reverse from Marcus Hines, sending Rubalcaba out in the pattern, but Brown couldn’t get the pass off. Shoot, even Rivas caught a 5-yard pass on the final series of the game.
Keep the Cougars guessing was the theme of the day.
“That was Coach (Jeromy) McDowell and the offensive staff. They did a phenomenal job,” Martin said. “He asked me, ‘You OK with this?’ and I said yes.”
Rubalcaba was rolling out and finding receivers from the get-go, hitting Brown for a 47-yard touchdown on the first series. Brown broke a tackle at the 25 to score.
A CMU field goal on the next possession after the defense came up with a three-and-out, followed by another field goal, made it 13-0.
Martin said earlier in the week that the Mavericks didn’t need to score on every possession, and that it was OK to punt every so often, but CMU scored on five of its first six series.
Early in the second quarter, Nelson blocked a 48-yard field goal attempt.
“Coach Mac (Alexander) always preaches give effort. Some teams don’t come off on field goal block, but we come off every time,” Nelson said of the Mavericks always attempting to block kicks. “It opens up holes and (Rivas) seems to get free 90 percent of the time. We’ve been great at that all year, getting big stops and we got another one today.”
On first down from the 30, Rubalcaba handed off to Tann, who ran to his right, hit the brakes and ran all the way back to his left behind the line. In front of him were his receivers, paving the way.
“All the credit goes to the line, the offensive line. They played great this year,” Tann said. “Our receivers were blocking on that long run today. Nothing was play-side, I saw a lane back-side and all I saw was two or three receivers blocking downfield, and they thought the ball was going the other way.
“All the credit to them sticking on their blocks and doing everything the team asked for them to do, especially in the passing game. The blocks and opening up holes downfield, it’s easy for me. I’m just runnin’.”
Seventy yards later, he was into the end zone and nearing 1,000 yards rushing for the season, although he admitted he about lost his footing in the final 10 or 15 yards.
He went over 1,000 yards, the first CMU back to accomplish that feat since Jake Cimolino in 2013, with a 10-yard gain on the next series. Fruita Monument graduate Cody Daniels, another senior, intercepted a tipped pass with 7:40 to play in the first half to give the ball back to the offense.
“Coach talked at the beginning of the week, we’re not holding anything back now; we don’t have time for that,” said Tann, who finished with 106 yards on 16 carries. “We were throwing everything at them and just trying to put points on the board.”
After leading 23-7 at halftime, though, the Mavericks’ offense went stagnant, managing only nine total yards in the third quarter as Azusa Pacific started to come back. With Elffers and running back Kurt Scoby pounding out yardage behind the Cougars’ massive offensive line, Azusa took a 24-23 lead late in the third quarter.
Scoby scored from 1 yard out after Josh Brown elected to pick up a bouncing punt inside the 10, was immediately hit and lost the ball. Azusa recovered at the 1. After Hall’s 33-yard field goal, the Mavericks were down one point and needing one more rally.
So the team that’s won on blocked kicks, goal-line stands and every way imaginable, got the break it needed when Rubalcaba was shoved onto the track when he was clearly out of bounds on a scramble.
Tight end Daniel Perse was all alone on the sideline and hauled in a pass, broke a tackle and was dragged down after picking up 24 yards. Sheehan put CMU back up with a 44-yard field goal that barely cleared the crossbar.
Scoby, though, broke off a 55-yard run on first down, knocking Rivas over in the open field before De’Angelo Lindsay and Taylor Schultz dragged him down, saving a touchdown.
That proved to be huge five plays later when the Cougars (9-2), ranked sixth in Super Region Three, lined up for a field goal.
Enter Rivas. Afterburners, Clark. Hello, playoffs.
“I thought I had dejà vu,” Rivas said. “I had to wipe my eyes a little bit. You really can’t write it any better. It is weird, same thing. Man, can you believe this? You really can’t write a better regular season for this team so far, and now we’re on to the playoffs.”
Martin, for one, planned to sleep well Saturday night, unlike this time last year.
“I’ll sleep a whole lot better,” he said. “A year ago we were up all night. We were coming back from Western and I knew it was going to be iffy at that point about getting into the playoffs with some of the other games. This year where we were already 7 and playing a quality football team like this.
“There’s no excuse for us not to be in the playoffs. This team deserves to be in the playoffs.”