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Matadors get long-awaited bowl win
For three straight bowls under Tom Minnick, the Arizona Western football team mounted ferocious fourth-quarter comebacks, falling short in heartbreaking fashion every time.
On Saturday, it was Minnick's Matadors that withstood a frenzied comeback attempt and got the fifth-year AWC coach his first bowl win with the team and the program's first bowl win since 1981.
The Matadors had an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but Nassau got to within five with 6:54 left. The Lions didn't get the ball again in a 42-37 AWC win in the El Toro Bowl at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“It feels great to get a win at the end of the season so you don't have that sour taste in your mouth the whole year,” Minnick said. “It's good for recruiting, it's good for the community and everybody that supported us here today. It was a great crowd and I'm proud to be a part of this community.”
While Minnick said it was nice being on top late — Nassau scored first, but AWC took the lead when Pat Martin returned an interception 44 yards for a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter and never trailed again — he said he wished the lead remained at 18 throughout the late stages.
“I wish we could have been up and not had to do that,” Minnick said. “Maybe have got some other guys in, but it didn't happen that way. The thing is we had a great year, got a bowl win, and being 8-2 should be in the top 10 in the nation.
“And our conference is 2-0 against their conference, which is a great thing,” Minnick added, referring to Snow's 47-21 victory over ASA earlier Saturday in the Carrier Dome Bowl.
Martin's touchdown came 64 seconds into the second quarter, when he read quarterback Jordan Rodriguez and jumped the route.
“It feels good to know I made an impact on this game,” Martin said. “In the coverage that was called for, I got the third receiver. But I knew they were throwing to him, so I broke on it, caught it, and the rest is history.”
Minnick said Martin has come close on some returns this year and was glad to see the freshman finally make the play.
“That was a big play for Pat,” Minnick said. “He came through now and he's had a couple in his hands he could have gone the distance. But he grabbed this one and took it the distance in a bowl game, which is great. It gave us momentum getting up and not playing from behind all the time. And that was a great thing”
Nassau tied the game with a pick-six of their own when Thomas Joyce returned a Tanner McEvoy interception 91 yards for a score.
McEvoy finished the game with 245 yards and three touchdowns, but also had two costly interceptions. The one by Joyce led directly to a touchdown, and his second came with AWC (8-2) up 42-31 and was taken to the Matador 1-yard line by Amara Kamara, who had a team-high 12 tackles. The Lions (9-2) punched it in on fourth down on a sneak by Rodriguez to bring the game to its final score.
McEvoy was one of four MVPs in the game — each team had an offensive and defensive MVP.
“This plaque is kind of — I mean, I'm happy to get it,” McEvoy said, “but I'm really bummed out about those two picks. They are going to eat me up for awhile. I felt we had a pretty good game, we threw the ball right, we ran the ball right, defense came up with some big points, special teams too.”
But McEvoy answered his initial interception with a touchdown pass on the next drive. After two big passes earlier in the drive to Houston Boone, McEvoy hit Emmanuel Bibbs underneath, and the tight end went 35 yards to the end zone for a 21-14 lead. That score gave the Matadors the lead for good.
“We got up on them, tried to put them away, but they kept coming back,” Minnick said. “Turnovers played a big part of the game, both sides of the ball. But it's better to be lucky than good.”
The Matadors forced the Lions into a three-and-out after the Bibbs touchdown. The snap on the punt went high, and Dominique Blackmon took it three yards into the end zone with 48 seconds left. Nassau added a field goal as time expired to make the halftime score 28-17.
Nassau opened the second half with a Louis Johnson touchdown — he finished with 73 yards rushing on 10 carries. But J.C. Baker scored touchdowns on consecutive drives, one on a 47 yard run, one on an 8-yard pass, and the lead ballooned to 42-24.
But less than four minutes later, Malachi Lawrence was in the end zone on a pass from wide receiver Antwane Grant on a trick play. Then came McEvoy's pick and Rodriguez's two-yard run on fourth down.
“We watched a lot of film on them, “Rodriguez said. “On film, they look really good, and when they came out, they played a little bit better. They were 7-2 for a reason.”
After Rodriguez's rushing touchdown — his second of the game — Minnick said he was worried the Matadors would suffer through a fourth-straight bowl loss.
“I was frustrated, and thinking here we might do it again, throw one away,” Minnick said. “But we just hung on. Our offensive line played pretty well in the second half and we just ran the ball and ran the ball down their throat. That was a great thing.”
Travis Lock led the Lions with 124 rushing yards but couldn't find the end zone. Rodriguez added 51 on the ground and 125 through the air. AWC finished with a 490-332 edge in total yards, with McEvoy's 245 through the air a big difference. The Matadors finished with 245 rushing and passing yards.
Demont Buice added 76 rushing yards for AWC and Baker 79. McEvoy had 52, as well as completing passes to eight receivers, none more than four times.
“It feels good to know we're winners,” Martin said. “This was our last game. It feels good going out as winners.”