AZUSA, Calif. –- It would never have been said publicly but behind closed doors and only amongst whispers it could be heard last week. Azusa Pacific was more than just the best 1-4 team in the nation. The Cougars believed they were among one of the NAIA’s 25 best teams in the nation.
Southern Nazarene University, a team on the doorstep of its own Top 25 recognition, just might be the star witness in a case for Azusa Pacific after the Cougars dismantled SNU, 38-7, before a crowd of 2,083 Saturday evening in the “Canyon City.”
For the second time this season All-American candidate Jon Davis tied a school single-game record with 4 touchdown receptions and senior QB Rudy Carlton threw for 221 yards and had a hand in all 5 Cougars TDs as Azusa Pacific systematically and thoroughly put away an upstart Southern Nazarene which made its first-ever venture into California with aspirations of making a national statement to the pollsters. Instead, it was the Cougars who made a pronouncement that will surely leave the NAIA rating committee collectively scratching its head about how to properly evaluate a now 2-4 Azusa Pacific team that has certainly been a victim of a most daunting schedule among all NAIA teams and yet defeated 2 NAIA foes both considered among the top 30 programs in the country this year.
Azusa Pacific closed out with 31 unanswered points over the final 3 quarters and scored touchdowns on 5 consecutive drives to post its first blowout victory in nearly 2 seasons. Not since a 47-6 thumping of Eastern Oregon back on Oct. 29, 2005, had Azusa Pacific enjoyed such a large margin of victory, and the Cougars tallied their points in a variety of ways. They used an assortment of long drives, SNU miscues, physical force, lightening speed, and dazzling plays, particularly a couple by Davis, to run away from the Crimson Storm and in the process avenge last year’s 17-10 overtime loss at SNU in Bethany, Okla.
It took a pair of possessions for Azusa Pacific to figure out how to best attack the Crimson Storm defense but it was an ill-advised SNU decision that led to the game’s first score. After the Cougars failed to punch the ball into the end zone from 4 yards out on a fake field goal attempt, Southern Nazarene designed a fake of its own – from the Crimson Storm 9-yard line where punter Peter Orth, instead of kicking the ball, ran with it only to be caught by Joe LaPorta and Todd Dini a yard shy of the first down.
Azusa Pacific took over at the SNU 9 and 3 plays later Carlton hit Davis on a 5-yard slant to put the Cougars up 7-0.
SNU's Wendell Thompson returned the ensuing kickoff 73 yards to the Cougar 21-yard line, and on the first play from scrimmage senior QB Tyler Schneider hit Jared Elmore on a perfectly thrown lob to the corner of the end zone to knot the game at 7 apiece. But that was the last time Schneider would be at ease in his own backfield.
Led by defensive ends Casey Roel and Kenny Simmons, the Cougars pummeled Schneider, sacking him 4 times, putting a hurry on at least 3 of his throws and holding him to just 154 passing yards, 50 yards under his season average.
The Cougars moved out to a 14-7 lead when Carlton again teamed with Davis on a 1-yard TD lob on the first play of the second quarter. It was the cap on what could be considered a 2-play TD strike. On the previous snap, the final one of the first quarter, Davis beat one-on-one coverage and made a spectacular one-handed grab down the right sideline in a dead sprint to highlight a 59-yard catch-and-run that ended at the SNU 1-yard line.
“Rudy and I are really good friends,” said Davis, “and there are plenty of times where he just gives me a head nod and I know exactly what he wants. When it comes to the football field, we just connect.”
And that was just the beginning.
After SNU was held to just 12 yards on the next possession, the Carlton-Davis tandem went back to work as Carlton put a perfectly-placed ball down the far sideline where a well-covered Davis made another spectacular grab for a 32-yard touchdown which pushed the Azusa Pacific advantage to 21-7 midway through the second quarter.
“We’ve always had this connection, where I know that if drop back and have time, Jon is going to make the play,” said Carlton. “I have all the confidence in the world in him, and it was great to get him some opportunities to score.”
Roel, who seemingly was in the Crimson Storm backfield on every play, then recovered a Schneider fumbled snap at the SNU 33-yard line to set up yet another Cougar first half score. An SNU pass interference call on a Carlton to Paul Hardiman attempt put the ball at the 10-yard line and 3 plays later Carlton leaned in from a yard out for his second rushing TD of the season and a 28-7 Cougar halftime lead.
Azusa Pacific held the Southern Nazarene on the opening drive of the second half and the Carlton-Davis tandem wasted no time getting back to work, connecting on a 58-yard scoring strike on Azusa Pacific’s first snap of the second half, giving Davis his fourth touchdown reception of the game to match the school single-game record that he equaled in this year’s season-opener vs. MidAmerica Nazarene University and that 2 other Cougars have matched over the past 40 years.
“They seem to be on the same wavelength,” Santa Cruz described of the Carlton-Davis duo. “It’s a great connection.”
Davis now has 12 touchdown receptions in just 6 games this season and is only 3 shy of Dexter Davis’ school-season record of 15 TD catches that he set in 14 games during the Cougars’ 1998 NAIA championship season.
“Records are fun, but when you’re 1-4, you just want to win,” said Davis. “This win feels so good. This is a team sport – Pelt (Alex Peltier) had a great block for me on a touchdown, Rudy put an amazing touch on the ball for me, and this was just a great team win.”
Azusa Pacific capped the scoring the with a Ben Hansen career-long 49-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, which in turn allowed Santa Cruz to turn to the reserves and offer nearly 65 players playing time.
Southern Nazarene, which came into the game averaging 333 yards of total offense, managed just 56 yards in the first half and didn’t help itself with 2 turnovers. The Crimson Storm got into a rhythm in the second half, moving into Cougar territory on its final 4 drives but the last 3 all stalled out on downs, including the final one which ended the Cougar 13-yard line with just under a minute to play.
“Anytime you come out and only give up 7 points, that’s a big statement game for our defense,” said Santa Cruz. “I expected them to get better this week, and that was what they did. Football is all about details, and I saw a team this week taking care of the details much better than before.”
Brandon Smith rushed for a game-high 79 yards on 21 carries to spearhead the SNU offense. Carlton finished the game an efficient 10-for-17 passing for 221 yards and 4 TD tosses. He becomes the first Cougar since Neo Aoga in 1999 to throw for over 200 yards in 6 straight games. Davis finished with 6 receptions for 162 yards. Simmons recorded a season-high 10 tackles and had a hand in 2 sacks.
With the setback, Southern Nazarene falls to 3-2. Azusa Pacific, now 2-4, preps for Southern Oregon, which brings its 2-2 record to Azusa next Saturday (Oct. 6) for a 6 p.m. game.