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With An Eye to the Future

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November 8, 2008
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. -- This one was for the future with an eye on the past.

Azusa Pacific scored 20 straight points and put together its most complete effort of the season to beat East Texas Baptist University, 33-21, before 1,751 fans in a rare day game at Cougar Stadium. The victory snaps a 5-game losing streak and allows the Cougars to close the 2008 campaign on an upswing.

In the process of leading Azusa Pacific to the victory, quarterback John van den Raadt proved he isn’t a freshman anymore and that the growing pains are over. Meanwhile senior WR Jon Davis, who isn’t a Cougar anymore, closed the door on an outstanding 4-year career with a vintage performance.

The 18-year old van den Raadt completed 19-of-29 passes for 245 yards and threw a career-high 3 TD passes to fashion perhaps the finest effort of his very young career. He displayed confidence and savvy in leading the Cougars to a season-best 387 yards of total offense and 33 points. His 9-yard slant pass to Michael Van Gorden with 6 seconds left in the half gave Azusa Pacific a 13-7 lead at halftime.

“I really respect the young man,” said Cougar coach Victor Santa Cruz. “John stepped into a tough situation as a true freshman and was asked to lead this team by the third week of the season. He could have gone into a shell. He took too much heat for what was going on, but he kept on learning, and that’s a testament to his character. I’m excited how he finished the season today.”

On the Cougars’ opening possession of the second half, van den Raadt hooked up with Davis on a 46-yard TD strike down the right sideline in which Azusa Pacific’s all-time scoring receiver made an outstanding grab over a Tiger defender for a TD to push the Cougar lead to 19-7.

Not done yet and still wielding a hot hand, van den Raadt fired a 30-yard strike over the middle to a wide open Rick Myra for another score just 75 seconds later to give Azusa Pacific an insurmountable 26-7 cushion with more than 12 minutes left in the third quarter.

The rest was up to the Cougar defense, which tallied a season-high 3 take-a-ways and produced an inspiring 3-play goal-line stand at the 1-yard line to preserve its 3-TD lead at the time.

“That’s football, you have to create turnovers and we haven’t done a good job of that this year,” said Santa Cruz, “but today the turnovers were huge. They were timely.”

On ETBU’s ensuing drive following Myra’s TD, the first of his college career, the Tigers moved 65 yards downfield, relying on the legs of Corey George, who collected 49 of his team-high 92 rushing yards on the drive. After a Trevor Cavness run put the ball on the Cougar 1-yard line, East Texas Baptist tried an unsuccessful QB sneak and then went back to George, who appeared to slip into the end zone for the score only to have the line judge rule his knee down before the ball crossed the goal line. On fourth down, Cougar DE Matt Johnson met Tiger FB Tyler Simmons head on off the right end and cut him down at the knees for a 1-yard loss to snuff out the drive and give the ball back to Azusa Pacific.

“You always believe that until they’re actually in the end zone you can stop them,” said Santa Cruz. “That stand was a great momentum builder for the off-season.”

The Tigers finally broke through the Cougar defense late in the third quarter with a 53-yard drive that George capped with a 4-yard TD run to pull ETBU to within 2 scores at 26-14 as the quarter closed.

Van den Raadt and the Cougars answered though on its opening drive of the fourth quarter. He hit James Burke and Matt Davis on 22- and 21-yard pass plays to put ball inside the Tiger 20. Junior RB Chris Brown did the rest of the work, first with a 4-yard run and then with a dazzling 14-yard scamper through traffic and into the end zone for his team-leading fifth TD of the season, putting Azusa Pacific up 33-14 with 12 minutes left in the game.

East Texas shifted the game into a shootout mode with a 45-yard kickoff return followed by a 7-play, 40-yard drive highlighted by a Jari Brooks’ 7-yard TD catch to get the Tigers back to within a 2-possessions at 33-21 with 9 minutes still to play.

Moments later, the Tigers looked to make Azusa Pacific nervous by motoring 76 on 8 plays to the Cougar 4-yard line with 3 minutes remaining. However, on second down and under heavy duress, Tiger QB Stephen Oehlschleager fired an ill-advised pass into coverage in the end zone, and Cougar safety Shea Struicksma cradled the errant pass into his arms for his second pick of the game and of his career, preserving the victory.

Brown finished with a game-high 104 rushing yards on 20 carries, his fourth 100-yard game of the season. His 34-yard run on a third-and-24 play midway through fourth quarter proved vital in allowing Azusa Pacific to run more time off the clock and keep Oehlschlaeger off the field. The sophomore signal-caller found a hot hand late in the third quarter and at one point completed 11-of-15 passes for 148 yards before firing the fateful interception to Struicksma.

Van den Raadt, who also rushed for 19 yards, accounted for 264 of Azusa Pacific’s 387 yards of total offense. Myra finished with a team-high 5 catches for 49 yards, while Davis registered 4 grabs for 88 yards and closes out his career with 155 receptions for 2,244 yards, numbers that rank third on Azusa Pacific’s all-time charts. His 30 career TD catches are a school record.

In his final game as a Cougar, senior LB Brian Casey recorded a game-high 10 tackles, while fellow senior CB Andre Hunter added 7 take-downs, all of which came on ETBU’s final 2 drives when Oehlschleager continually chose to throw in Hunter’s direction. Senior Beau Leaman also had 7 tackles and it was his block of a Tiger punt – Azusa Pacific’s first in 3 seasons – at the ETBU 10-yard line that led to Azusa Pacific’s first TD, a James Brunt 1-yard blast.

Azusa Pacific, which was playing its first home day game since 1994 – a stretch of 79 games, closes the season at 2-8. East Texas Baptist falls to 4-5 and finishes its campaign next week.