The Wildcats, who are ranked No. 5 in NCAA Division II, scored on long drives, quick strikes and fumble returns and then relied on a tightfisted defense to put away Azusa Pacific for the second straight year.
Redshirt freshman QB Ryan Robertson completed 10-of-15 passes for 163 yards and 3 TDs, including a 15-yard strike to Bryson Kelly on the Wildcats’ second offensive series that gave CWU a 7-0 lead.
In an eerily similar repeat to last week setback’s at Wisconsin-La Crosse, the Cougars suffered a fatal blow with a turnover on the ensuing drive that the Wildcats returned for another TD. Cougar RB Oliver Petty fumbled ,and Central Washington’s Buddy Wood scooped the loose ball and returned it 33 yards to cap a CWU 14-point outburst in just over 2 minutes.
Azusa Pacific tried to answer with a pair of drives that moved into Wildcat territory, but both advances stalled when the Cougars could not convert fourth downs. After the second failure, CWU turned right around and scored on the first play when Robertson hit Johnny Spevak on a 63-yard touchdown pass to put the Wildcats up 21-0 early in the second quarter.
They added another TD as time was winding down in the first half when Randall Eldridge plowed into the end zone from a yard out with 50 seconds left to cap a lengthy 16-play, 74-yard drive that give the Wildcats a 28-0 halftime lead.
The Cougars hurt themselves to start the second half when sophomore QB John van den Raadt was sacked and fumbled on the second play. CWU recovered at the Cougar 13-yard line and 3 plays later Robertson connected with Spevak on a 6-yard TD score to put the Wildcats up 35-0.
Azusa Pacific got on the scoreboard late in the third quarter when Ben Hansen made a 23-yard field goal to highlight a 73-yard drive. Van den Raadt accounted for 63 of the yards on the drive, 38 on 3 rushes and another 25 on a pair of pass completions.
Later in the quarter, however, the Wildcats intercepted van den Raadt deep in Cougar territory and needed just 4 plays to tack on another TD to move out to a 42-3 advantage.
The Cougars punched in a late TD with a Chris Brown 1-yard run to cap a 42-yard drive that was aided by a Wildcat personal foul.
The Wildcat defense, which came into the game yielding less than 7 points a game this season, continually thwarted a persistent Cougar running game. Brown finished with 66 yards but it took a season-high 29 carries to get there.
“The score may not show it, but played hard from the opening kickoff to the very end,” said Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “We went toe-to-toe with probably the most physical team I’ve seen in my 9 years at Azusa Pacific. We did not give up. We did not wilt. Obviously, the turnovers really hurt us, but we kept coming at them with energy and fight on both sides of the line. I feel as if we turned a corner in terms of our morale and attitude.”
The Cougars were victims of big plays and several short-field situations for CWU, and the stats bear that out. Azusa Pacific dominated time of possession with more than 34 minutes of snaps and only 2 first downs and 60 yards of total offense separated the 2 squads.
Van den Raadt was 5-for-11 passing for 78 yards. He was picked off twice. He rushed for 55 yards on 9 carries.
“I’m proud of our young guys,” said Santa Cruz. “They’re showing the ingredients it takes to be a confident program. For 4 quarters they were getting after it and kept their spirit high. Unfortunately, you don’t just add water to those ingredients and stir. It takes work, and this is a hard-working group of young men.”
With the loss Azusa Pacific falls to 0-4 while Central Washington improves to 4-0.
Azusa Pacific returns home to make its Cougar Stadium season debut next week when it hosts Wisconsin-Stevens Point in a 6 p.m. game.