Yuma, Arizona - In a battle that featured over 800 yards of total offense, the 12th-ranked Matadors of Arizona Western College defeated the 6th-ranked Lions of Nassau Community College, 42-37, in the 2012 El Toro Bowl-presented by Alexander Automotive Group-at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Yuma Saturday afternoon.
It’s the first postseason football victory for the Matadors since 1972, and spoils the Lions’ hopes for a win in their first bowl appearance since 2004.
Bowl organizers and the 2,984 fans who packed into ‘The Vet’ Saturday could not have asked for better weather for the bowl game, since it was 76 degrees and sunny at kickoff. That was an element that the Lions-who left chilly 30-degree weather when they departed their Long Island, New York homes bound for Yuma on Wednesday-originally welcomed when they made the choice to accept the invitation and make the 2700-mile trek. Nassau certainly showed that comfort level in the first five minutes of the game, sacking Matadors’ quarterback (and 2012 ACCAC Offensive Player of the Year) Tanner McEvoy twice in AWC’s opening possession, forcing a ‘three-and-out’. The Lions then took the ball and efficiently marched down the field on their first possession, going 50 yards in eight plays to score the first touchdown of the contest on a 20-yard run by Lions’ quarterback Jordan Rodriguez, taking a 7-0 lead with 10:36 left in the 1st quarter. For a team that has spotted their last 3 bowl opponents double-digit leads to start the game over the last 3 years, that quick opponents’ touchdown might have sent shock waves through the Matadors’ bench, but instead, AWC would show how different this postseason would be. The Matadors’ defense stiffened, holding Nassau without a first down in the Lions’ next 3 drives, allowing AWC’s offense time to find a rhythm in the final stages of the 1st quarter, mounting a 10-play, 61-yard drive that culminated with a 17-yard TD pass from Tanner McEvoy to Shaquan Curenton to tie the score at 7 with just 52 seconds left. The 2nd quarter would then be dominated by scores off opponents’ offensive and special teams’ miscues. The first mistake was a Rodriguez pass that Matador safety Pat Martin anticipated well, stepping in front of the intended receiver to pick it off and scamper 40 yards to the end zone to give the Mats their first lead of the game with 13:56 left in the half. AWC would keep the lead until the final three minutes of the half, when Lions’ linebacker Thomas Joyce returned the favor by anticipating a McEvoy pass and taking the interception 92 yards the other way for a TD that would tie the score at 14 with 2:52 left before the intermission. Undeterred, the Matador offense got the ball back, and efficiently marched 78 yards down the field in just five plays, with tight end Emmanuel Bibbs taking a McEvoy dump-off pass and eluding five Lions’ tacklers en route to paydirt for a 35-yard TD to break the tie with 1:21 left. The special teams fireworks would ensue just 34 seconds later, when-after Nassau’s offense again failed to pick up a first down after three plays-the 4th-down snap sailed high over the head of Nassau punter John Scelfo, allowing Matador defensive back Dominique Blackmon to scoop up the loose ball at the Nassau 6 and take it in for a 28-14 lead. The Lions would respond, though, rolling from their own 21-yard-line to the Matadors’ 24 in just 47 seconds, allowing Nassau kicker Tyler Simon to boot a 41-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired, cutting the AWC lead to 28-17 at the intermission.
Whatever pep talk 1st-year head coach Curtis Guilliam delivered to his Nassau team at halftime was very effective, since the Lions took the opening 2nd-half kickoff and went 79 yards in just 6 plays, capping off the drive with a 13-yard TD run by their leading rusher on the year, Louis Johnson. Once again, the Matador offense responded to the shift in momentum with an emphatic answer, marching from their own 20-yard-line to the Nassau 47 in seven plays, and watching Yuma-area product J.C. Baker finish off the drive with a 47-yard sprint to the end zone to extend the Matador lead back to double digits. Nassau appeared to be on the way to answering back until Matador linebacker Raahmil Brantley reversed the momentum with a 10-yard sack of Rodriguez near midfield to stop the drive. That gave the Matador offense a chance to use the Yuma heat to their advantage, wearing down the NCC defense by chewing up yardage on the ground with the power rushing attack of McEvoy (25 yards on 2 rushes), fullback Demont Buice (26 yards on 2 carries) and some trickery (McEvoy with a backward pass to left tackle Jaylen Hunter, who rumbled 24 yards on his first yards as a Matador). That set up a McEvoy-to-Baker TD screen pass for 8 yards at the beginning of the 4th quarter to give the Matadors their largest lead of the day at 42-24 with 14:03 left. Feeling the urgency, the Lions’ offense returned serve with an 11-play, 79-yard drive that found the end zone when wide receiver Antwone Grant threw a 21-yard option pass to fellow wideout Malachi Lawrence with 10:14 left to cut the AWC lead back to eleven points. The suspense for the game’s outcome officially returned just minutes later when Lions’ linebacker (and 2012 NFC Defensive Player of the Year) Amara Kamara intercepted a McEvoy pass and returned it to the AWC 1-yard line, allowing Rodriguez to cash in the turnover 5 plays later on a fourth-down, 1-yard TD run and make it a 42-37 Matador lead (the Lions’ 2-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful). Nassau seemed to build on that momentum when penalties reared their ugly heads for the Matadors, negating a long Andre O’Neil kickoff return with a holding call, and backing the Matadors up to their own one-yard line on false start infractions. The Matadors then showed how much they wanted to bring their head coach, Tom Minnick, his first bowl win at AWC as they gradually chewed up yardage and clock, converting a 3rd-and-10 from their own 5-yard line, then using 9 consecutive positive-yardage runs by Buice, Baker and McEvoy to take the ball inside the Lions’ 5-yard line and run out the clock to ice the 42-37 victory.
The win gave Minnick his first bowl victory since he led Joliet Junior College (in Illinois) to a bowl win in 2007, and ended three previous years of bowl frustration for the Matadors. It also gave the Matadors a finishing 8-2 overall record in 2012 while also notching their 38th win over the past four years combined-the most wins in any four-year stretch in Matador Football history. McEvoy was named the Matadors’ El Toro Bowl Offensive Most Valuable Player after completing 18 of his 24 pass attempts for 245 yards and 3 touchdowns, and also rushing for 51 yards on nine carries. Matadors’ linebacker Sam Wren earned the team’s defensive MVP award after racking up his 14th sack of the season in the first quarter, and pressuring Rodriguez nearly all afternoon.
For the Lions, who end the year with a 9-2 overall mark, Rodriguez was named their offensive MVP as he threw for 111 yards through the air and rushed for 43 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, Joyce was named the Lions’ defensive MVP for his interception return for a touchdown as well as recording one of the Lions’ 2 sacks on the afternoon.