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Cougars Ready for a Classic Start

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August 21, 2007
Gary Pine
Azusa Pacific vs.
MidAmerica Nazarene

Saturday (Aug. 25)
Platte City, Mo.
Pirate Stadium, 7 p.m. (CDT)

2007 Records:
Azusa Pacific – 3-7
MidAmerica Nazarene – 7-3

THIS WEEK: Azusa Pacific kicks off its 44th season of collegiate football Saturday (Aug. 25) in the inaugural “First Down Classic” where the Cougars meet MidAmerica Nazarene University (Kan.) at Pirate Stadium in Platte City, Mo. Kickoff is set for 7 p. m. (CDT)

RADIO: The Azusa Pacific-MidAmerica Nazarene game wll be broadcast live on the Internet on KCSP-610AM. Mark Miller, John Doolittle and Lorell LaBoube calling all the action will call all the action beginning at 6:45 p.m. (CDT)

Livestats of the game will also be available on the Internet through the Azusa Pacific athletics website.

TICKET PRICES: Tickets for Saturday’s game at Platte County Pirate Stadium can be purchased over the Internet or by calling the Victory Sports Network ticket office at 308-383-1431. Tickets are $7 in advance. Game-day tickets are $10 adults, $8 for students.

DIRECTIONS: Platte County’s Pirate Stadium is less than 9 miles from the Kansas City International Airport. Directions from the Kansas City International Airport to Pirate Stadium via Mapquest.

FIRST DOWN CLASSIC: The brainchild of Victory Sports Network (VSN) and its founder Jason Dannelly, the First Down Classic is a showcase came to kick off the NAIA football season much like the Pigskin Classic or the Eddie Robinson Football Classic used to start the NCAA Division I season.

The First Down Classic is played at Pirate Stadium on the campus of Platte County R3 High School in Platte City, Mo.

“Everyone at this level of athletics needs a game they can get behind to kick off the football season, said Dannelly. “We want this to become an event all fans of the NAIA can look forward to every year.”

While VSN puts the final touches on the this Saturday’s inaugural First Down Classic between Azusa Pacific and MidAmerica Nazarene, plans are almost finalized for next year’s First Down Classic which again will feature a pair of NAIA powers. The official announcement of next year’s match-up will be forthcoming from VSN next month.

EARLY CALL: For only the second time in program history, Azusa Pacific is playing an 11-game schedule (the 2004 slate was the other campaign), and in order to squeeze in all of this year’s games the Cougars have bumped up their agenda to play a first-ever August game. Prior to this season, the earliest start date to a Cougar season was Sept. 1, first in 2001 and again last year, and both games were against NCAA power University of San Diego. In fact, for the first time since 1996, Azusa Pacific is not starting a season with a game against USD.

SERIES NOTES: MidAmerica Nazarene has won the only other previous meeting with Azusa Pacific, and it was a monumental victory in the history of Pioneer football. In MNU’s first-ever playoff appearance, the Pioneers downed Azusa Pacific, 27-21, at home in Olathe, Kan., during the opening round of the 2000 NAIA Football Championship Series. The No. 5-ranked Pioneers took advantage of some shoddy Cougar special teams play and chilly 34-degree weather to keep Azusa Pacific at bay the entire day. Azusa Pacific, which missed all 3 extra-point attempts on its 3 TD scores, took a 12-10 lead early in the second quarter, but behind the running of the game’s offensive MVP Greg Simpson, who rushed for 126 yards on 22 carries, MidAmerica regained control and clinched the victory with a Marvin Morris 43-yard run with 2:54 left to play to move out to a 27-15 advantage. The Cougars added a late TD with 34 seconds remaining.

LIDLIFTERS: All-time Azusa Pacific is 20-22 in season openers, but since 1980 the Cougars are a fine 17-11 in lid-lifters and have won 8 of the past 12. The Cougars lost their first 9 season openers until they knocked off San Diego, 15-7, to start the 1974 campaign. Overall, Azusa Pacific is 8-17 in season-openers on the road.

CONNECTIONS: MidAmerica Nazarene head coach Jed Stugart is a 1994 graduate of Azusa Pacific. He played 2 seasons (1991-92) for Cougar Hall of Fame Coach Jim Milhon and then assisted on Milhon’ staff for the 1993 campaign. Milhon, who also coached Kansas City Chief great Christian Okoye during his college days at Azusa Pacific, will be making the trip to Platte City for the First Down Classic ... The Pioneers also feature sophomore LB Nick Beghtol, who was a catcher on the 2006 Azusa Pacific baseball team, starting 41 of the 42 games he played for the Cougars ... Cougar offensive coordinator Josh Darnell spent 3 seasons as the offensive coordinator at Independence (Kan.) Community College ... MidAmerica Nazarene features 3 players from California: wide out Shanon Cannon from Los Angeles, defensive back Mat Mitchell from Dana Point and defensive lineman Deonte Wysinger from Oakland.

TOUGH FOES: A year ago Azusa Pacific played the most difficult schedule of any NAIA team according to The finishing numbers on the 2006 campaign would concur. Of Azusa Pacific’s 10 opponents in 2006, 6 combined for an impressive 60-10 (.857) record. Four opponents enjoyed 1-loss seasons and another endured just 2 losses and both of them were to the same team. One opponent went on to capture the NCAA I-AA mid-major championship (San Diego) and another was the NCAA DIII runner-up (Wisconsin-Whitewater).

This year’s slate doesn’t seems to be any easier. Seven of the Cougars’ 11 foes combined for a 61-15 (.802) record last year, and their first 4 opponents – MidAmerica Nazarene (7-3 in 2006), San Diego (11-1), Malone (7-4) and Wisconsin-La Crosse (9-2) -- are all nationally-ranked in their respective preseason polls. For only the third time in program history they are playing an NCAA I-AA program with scholarship – Nicholls State (4-7). In mid-October, the Cougars play back-to-back to games against NCAA Division II Humboldt State (9-1) and NCAA Division III Whitworth (11-1), which were a combined 20-2 last year.

NEUTRAL PERSPECTIVE: Azusa Pacific has played only one other neutral site game in program history, but what a memorable one it was, and it too was against a Nazarene school. Azusa Pacific won the 1998 NAIA national championship in Savannah, Tenn., where it beat Olivet Nazarene of Bourbonnais, Ill., 17-14, in the title game

ABOUT THE COACHES: Victor Santa Cruz is in his second year at the Cougar helm but his seventh on the Cougar coaching staff. Santa Cruz, 35, was the Cougar defensive coordinator before being named the program’s ninth head coach Dec. 14, 2005. A former 4-year linebacker at the University of Hawaii, Santa Cruz came to Azusa Pacific in 2001 after spending 5 seasons as an assistant for legendary prep coach Herb Meyer at El Camino High in Oceanside, Calif. Santa Cruz prepped at Rancho Buena High in Vista, Calif.

Jed Stugart is also in his second season as a head coach, taking over the MidAmerica Nazarene program Jan. 20, 2006. He came to the Olathe, Kan., campus after spending 7 seasons on the coaching staff at the University of Northern Colorado where he served as the defensive coordinator the final 3 years. Upon graduating from Azusa Pacific in 1994, Stugart spent 2 years as a singer/songwriter in Nashville, Tenn., before returning to his home in Greeley, Colo., where he spent a year coaching at Greeley Central High before joining the UNC staff.

NATIONAL RANKINGS: MidAmerica Nazarene is ranked No. 17 in the 2006 NAIA Coaches Preseason Top 25 Poll. Azusa Pacific, which had appeared in 50 consecutive NAIA Coaches Polls from Sept. 17, 2002 to Sept. 18, 2006, is not ranked in the NAIA coaches’ poll.

In the Victory Sports Network Preseason Poll, MidAmerica Nazarene is ranked No. 15 and Azusa Pacific is ranked No. 23.

ABOUT THE COUGARS: Azusa Pacific returns 55 players from last year’s 3-7 team, including 11 redshirts. The Cougars return 19 players, including 7 starters, from last year’s defense that yielded just 6 TDs over the final 3 games of the season. On offense, second-year Cougar coach Victor Santa Cruz welcomes back 24 players, including 5 starters.

Heading the list of returnees is senior QB Rudy Carlton and redshirt junior RB Alex Peltier, both of whom are bouncing back from injury-plagued 2006 campaigns. Carlson played just 3 full games and less than 2 combined quarters in 2 other games, while Peltier, who fashioned an outstanding 2004 freshman season when he rushed 743 yards as a back-up, has missed 15 straight games dating back to the 2005 season. Both players are at full strength and are expected to provide a jolt of electricity into a vastly improved Cougar offense.

On defense, junior LB Travis Bengard teams with senior CB Cameron Tucker to give the Cougars what should be a very strong defense. Bengard has 158 tackles in his 20-game (all starts) Cougar career while Tucker has collected 9 interceptions in his 3-year career, including a team-high 4 last year.

TOP NEWCOMERS: During the off-season the Cougar coaching staff focused on rebuilding both the offensive and defensive lines and as a result 7 new lineman are expected to see time, including DE Darrell Tupoula, an impact transfer from Santa Ana (Calif.) Community College. On the offensive side of the ball, center Joel Garnica and guard David Ofahulu should enhance the Cougar ground game this year.

ROAD WARRIORS: With only 3 NAIA schools west of the Rockies sponsoring football and with no local NCAA DIII schools willing to play Azusa Pacific, the Cougars have had to scramble, literally, to put together a schedule. No one in all of college football covers more ground than Azusa Pacific, which will log nearly 18,000 miles of travel to reach its 6 road games this season. The Cougars play in Missouri, Wisconsin (again), Louisiana, Utah and Florida this season. A year ago they were in Ohio, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington and Oklahoma to complete their 10-game slate. All told, Azusa Pacific has traveled more than 30,000 miles the past 2 seasons to complete its schedule as an NAIA independent.

GO EAST, YOUNG MAN: Azusa Pacific had never played a game east of the Rockies until 1992, and even then it was another 6 years before it ventured again over the mountains and into the plains. However, since 1998, it has become nearly an annual event for Azusa Pacific to travel east. Last year alone, the Cougars ventured on the other side of the Rockies 3 times, and this year they will do it another 4 times. All-time, Azusa Pacific is 7-5 east of the Rockies.

POSTSEASON SIGHTS: Azusa Pacific has advanced to the NAIA playoffs 6 of the past 9 seasons, beginning with the 1998 championship season. The Cougars, who also moved into the NAIA semifinals in 1999 and again in 2004, are 8-4 all-time in NAIA postseason play.

MidAmerica Nazarene has appeared in the NAIA playoffs 4 of the past 7 years and is looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2004. The Pioneers are 2-4 all-time in the playoffs with one of those victories being over Azusa Pacific in 2000.

Other than the 2000 season, Azusa Pacific and MidAmerica Nazarene were also together in the 2003 and 2004 NAIA playoff field.

BY THE NUMBER: Since it’s 1998 NAIA national championship season, Azusa Pacific is 68-31 (.687) on the gridiron ... Senior CB Cameron Tucker needs 2 more interceptions to move into fifth place on the all-time Cougar chart with 11 picks ... Senior WR Trent Sakioka needs 3 more punt returns to move into tenth place on the Cougar career list with 23 ... Junior RB Alex Peltier needs another 112 yards to become only the 14th Cougar ever to rush for over 1,000 yards in a career.

ABOUT PIONEERS: MidAmerica Nazarene, which is located in Olathe, Kan., just south of Kansas City, Kan., returns much of its offense from a team that went 7-3 last year and is picked to finished second in the Heart of America Athletic Conference this season.

Heading the list of returnees is senior QB Matt Schneider, an all-conference candidate who a year ago completed 191-of-342 (.558) passes for 2,368 yards and 21 TDs. His favorite target, senior WR James Perry, is back as well after collecting 87 grabs for 919 yards and 10 TDs in 2006. The Pioneer ground game has been rebuilt from last year but nonetheless it should be quite powerful with Patrick Ealy leading the way. A transfer from Northern Colorado, Ealy was a 2005 All-Great West Football Conference pick as a return specialist while averaging 6.2 yards a rush as a running back.

Senior safety Andre Shaw is MNU’s top returnee on defense. A year ago he registered 74 tackles and 4 interceptions.

The Pioneers won 5 of their final 6 games to close last year, averaging a hefty 33.8 points a game in the process. A 28-21 loss at Benedictine in the next to last week of the regular season is the likely culprit of keeping MNU out of the NAIA playoffs.

Saturday’s game against Azusa Pacific is MidAmerica Nazarene’s first nonconference game since Nov. 27, 2004, when the Pioneers lost to Georgetown (Ky.), 46-27, in the quarterfinals of the NAIA playoffs, and it’s the first regular-season nonconference contest since Sept. 11, 2004, when they beat Ottawa (Kan.), 31-7 at home.

SANTA CRUZ SAYS: “We’re excited to get going,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “We’ve hit each other enough. We’re ready to hit a different color for once.

“It’s really been a good set of 2-a-days. We made great strides in becoming a team. The leaders are leading, and I feel like everyone is on board and getting a good grasp of schemes. Or should I say at least we have 11 guys going in the right direction.

“Changing how we practiced has really helped our health. We prepared ourselves to play physical but we did not over do it. We kind of took a pro aspect to our practices and cut back on the physical contact in 2-a-days and the end result is that this has been one of our healthier camps. We’re in good shape heading into MidAmerica game.

“Our run game has to tools to be effective but we have a younger o-line this year. They’re excited and ready to go, but we need to play a game before we can take the next step of growth.

“Having an experienced veteran like Rudy (Carlton) in camp has really helped our passing game to gets it timing. We have an older receiving corps this year and they have set a high standard in practice and preparation. They’ve been great leaders.

“We have not brushed a 3-7 season under the carpet, but instead we have tried to mine it for everything we can. It is not our standard, and 3-7 is not what we want, but it has made us hungrier and more unassuming. The guys realize that this is a new era of Cougar football, that the foundation that the alumni have built over the previous 4 decades has allowed this program to now stretch out into greater challenges of competition. As a result, we’ve have to step it up as a team in how we practice, how we think, and how we prepare. The guys are excited and ready to take that next step and build this thing 1 play at a time.”