There was one ingredient missing in a remarkable success story for the College of the Canyons football program.
Until Saturday, the Cougars had never won a bowl game in their 16-year football history. The years of frustration came to an end in a 35-32 victory over Saddleback in the 2001 Western State Conference Bowl at Cougar Stadium.
The victory was the 10th in a row for the Cougars, their longest since football returned to Canyons in 1998. It was also the first time the Cougars (10-1) have won 10 games in the program's history.
"We've never done that before," said Coach Chuck Lyon, the architect of the program's success with a 33-11 record in four seasons as coach. "Ten straight is very hard to do. In my coaching career, as a head coach and as an assistant, I've never done that before."
The victory didn't come without a struggle for the Cougars. They had to come from behind three times in the game. They also had to outlast a 39-point scoring barrage by both teams in the fourth quarter.
The teams were tied 14-14 at halftime and didn't score in the first 23 minutes of the second half. That was when everything seemed to change.
After Saddleback (7-4) finally broke the deadlock with a 26-yard field goal by David Davenport with 6:33 remaining, the Cougars responded 19 seconds later when quarterback Kyle Bauer connected with tight end Leon Pinky on a 57-yard pass play for a touchdown that gave them a 21-17 lead that they wouldn't relinquish.
The prospects appeared even better for the Cougars after tight end Mike Gomez hooked up with wide receiver Chris Chestnut on an option pass play that went for 45 yards for a touchdown with 3:26 remaining.
Only the Gauchos, who went into the game having won six of their last seven games, were quick to respond.
They pulled within striking distance on a 29-yard pass from quarterback Jason Whieldon to wide receiver Chris Bernard with 2:25 remaining. Then they closed their deficit to 28-25 on a pass from Whieldon to Darren Shorter for a two-point conversion.
The Cougars put the game out of reach in the final minute when linebacker Brad Lloyd forced a fumble by Whieldon and teammate Joey LaPorte scooped it up and ran 73 yards for a touchdown with 39 second remaining.
Saddleback had one last gasp and it came of a 57-yard pass play from Whieldon to a wide-open Billy Cobb with 11 seconds remaining. Stephen Stokes of Canyons recovered an onside kick on the ensuing play and the Cougars had their first victory in a bowl game.
"If you're a fan of football, you had to love this game," Lyon said. "That game was a dogfight. I'm exhausted."
The Cougars overcame a brilliant performance by Saddleback's Whieldon, who completed 28 of 45 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns. Bernard had nine catches for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Bauer completed 18 of 31 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns for the Cougars, who finished with 436 yards on offense. J.J. Arrington rushed for 101 yards in 23 carries, the first time a Cougar has rushed for 100 yards or more this season.
Rushing: Saddleback—Bernard 5-41-0, Shorter 13-25-1, Walker 2-7-0, Christensen 2-5-0, Smith 1-1-0, Harris 1-1-0, Whieldon 8-(-36)-0. Totals 32-44-1. Canyons—Arrington 23-101-0, Caldwell, 5-24-0, Brignac 4-9-0, Stokes 1-1-0, Bauer 4-0-0, Team 1-0-0. Totals. 38-135-0.
Passing: Saddleback—Whieldon 28-45-433-3. Totals 28-45-433-3. Canyons—Bauer 18-31-256-3, Gomez 1-1-45-1, Thomson 0-2-0. Totals 19-34-301-4.
Receiving: Saddleback—Bernard 9-130-1, Holder 5-80-1, Shorter 5-74-0, Diulio 4-38-0, Garner 3-41-0, Cobb 2-70-1. Totals 28-433-3. Canyons—Chestnut 5-74-1, Pinky 4-88-1, Broussard 4-87-1, Gomez 3-24-0, C. Thompson 2-19-1, Stokes 1-9-0. Totals 19-301-4.