Senior DE Casey Roel and freshman LB Jay York paced a Cougar defense that frustrated Dixie State’s offense through the first 3 quarters of play, forcing 7 turnovers while holding the Rebels to just 85 yards total offense and 6 first downs on their first 14 possessions. As a result, the Cougars rolled out to a 30-0 lead by early in the fourth quarter before the Rebels closed the game with 3 TDs in an 8-minute span to make the score closer than the game.
“We’ve played some pretty good defense this year, but this was our best game to date,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “We were able to get to their quarterbacks and not let them get comfortable in the pocket.”
The Cougars sacked a pair of Dixie State quarterback 7 times, 3 of which produced fumbles recovered by Azusa Pacific, and intercepted them a season-high 3 times, including on the game’s opening drive when sophomore CB Brent Willard picked off a Skyler Ence throw and returned it 48 yards for his first-ever TD and quick 7-0 Cougar lead less than 2 minutes into the game.
In all Azusa Pacific forced Ence and his second-half replacement, Nate Lewis, into 12 hurries on their throws and wreaked havoc on a Rebel passing game that completed just 13-of-43 passes for 184 yards, 163 of which came in the fourth quarter after Azusa Pacific went up by 30.
“We were lights out on defense,” said Santa Cruz. “We want to apply pressure on the quarterback and force quicker throws, and today both of their quarterbacks had to make quick decisions.”
The play of the Cougar defense offered enough time for a sputtering offense to get on track. A series of dropped passes and its own turnovers kept Azusa Pacific from scooting out to a larger advantage than its 10-0 halftime lead. Twice in the first half, Azusa Pacific fumbled inside the Rebel 5-yard line, ending a pair of sure scoring drives. Midway through the second quarter, senior QB Rudy Carlton and senior WR Jordan Farrell connected on a 22-yard pass play, but Farrell spilled the ball at the Rebel 4, and Dixie State recovered in the end zone. Then after Cameron Tucker picked off another Ence pass and returned it 47 yards to the Rebl 4, sophomore RB Rick Myra put the ball on the turf 3 plays later and the Dixie State recovered again, denying Azusa Pacific more points.
“What I love about this team is that while it is excited to have won the game, you can tell by its demeanor that it wants to win games better,” said Santa Cruz. “That’s a sign of a maturing team. There is a difference between winning and how well you play the game. You could tell the guys were saying ‘we have to win better than that.’”
In the second half, Azusa Pacific improved on its ball-handling skills and Carlton began connecting with his receivers, capping a pair of short drives initiated by fumble recoveries with touchdown tosses of 16 yards and 1 yard to Jon Davis, the second being Davis’ 20th TD catch of the year, just 3 shy of the NAIA single season record and the most in all of college football this year.
“There is an expectation between Rudy and Jon to score because of the caliber of athlete that Jon is, not because of records,” said Santa Cruz. “They look for the opportunity to come to them and not force anything.”
Meanwhile sophomore PK Ben Hansen connected on field goals of 25, 35 and 47 yards to run his streak of consecutive field goals made to 10 straight. For the season he is 15-of-16 of field goal attempts, tops in the NAIA.
“I played at Hawaii with a field goal kicker by the name of Jason Elam,” said Santa Cruz, “so I know how exciting it is to have an automatic kicker. We have a lot of belief in Ben. He has become a pretty good kicker.”
Carlton finished the game 17-for-33 passing for 173 yards. Davis had 5 catches for 62 yards while senior WR Paul Hardiman added 6 receptions for 52 yards.
“We were kind of out of sync in the first half,” said Santa Cruz, “but I am really happy with Rudy and the receivers. They kept fighting and kept after it until they finally got it going.”
Roel registered 7 tackles, including 3 for loss, to go along with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His force, which came on what proved to be a 25-yard QB sack, was recovered by senior LB Mac Gebbers and led to the first Carlton-Davis score that put the Cougars up 17-0 at the time. Gebbers later intercepted a pass that led to Hansen’s 47-yard field goal, his fourth over 40 yards this season.
York tallied a game-high 9 tackles and had a hand in 2 sacks.
The 7 takeaways, which eventually resulted 27 points for Azusa Pacific, are just 2 shy of the school single-game record, and because of them the Cougars needed just 233 yards of total offense.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 5-5 on the season while Dixie State, a second-year NCAA Division II program, falls to 3-6.