AZUSA, Calif. – Please forgive Azusa Pacific if it was a tad exuberant.
The Cougars took out a month’s worth of frustration on an unsuspecting Wisconsin-Stevens Point, scoring on 5 of their first 6 possessions by using big plays and a swarming defense to post their first win in 5 games, beating the Pointers, 23-7, Saturday evening in Cougar Stadium.
The Cougars, who had been beat up in 4 games by nationally-ranked NAIA and NCAA Division II teams, enjoyed being on the other side of the spectrum for the first time this season.
Senior RB Chris Brown rushed for 60 yards and a pair of TDs and senior PK Ben Hansen made 3 field goals, including a 53-yarder, the second longest in school history, to jettison the Cougars to a 23-0 lead midway through the third quarter. The rest was up to junior LB Jay York and the Cougar defense which held UWSP to just 235 yards of total offense and forced 4 turnovers.
“We know that from playing the teams that we’ve gone against that we would only get stronger as the season went on,” said Brown. “We felt like this was going to be a special game for us tonight given what we have faced in our opponents so far.”
For awhile, it appeared as if Hansen was going to be the only source of points for Azusa Pacific after the Cougars had 3 successive drives stall in UWSP territory. He made good on a chip shot of 17 yards after the Cougars’ second series sputtered inside the 5-yard line, and Santa Cruz went the safe route on fourth-and goal at the 1 following a timeout.
On Azusa Pacific’s next possession, which was ignited by Spencer Danielson’s quarterback sack and subsequent fumble recovery all in one motion at the Pointer 33-yard line, the Cougars went nowhere but back. So Santa Cruz again turned to Hansen who crushed a 53-yarder that had room to spare while moving the Cougars out to a 6-0 advantage. It was Hansen’s first field goal over 50 yards (previous best was 47) and it was just 1 yard shy of Brad Kramer’s 1974 school-record 54-yarder.
The Pointer offense, which managed just 21 yards on 8 plays in the first quarter, finally got on track to start the second quarter and motored to the Cougar 15-yard line. Under duress however, Pointer QB Jared Beckwith misfired on a pass and York found himself with his first interception of the season, returning it 72 yards down the left sideline to the UWSP 18-yard line. As he popped from the turf, he flipped the ball high in the air and was flagged for excessive celebration, the first of 2 such penalties called on the Cougars tonight, and thus Azusa Pacific had to step back 10 yards to the Pointer 28 to start their fourth drive. The Cougars eventually got to the UWSP 12 before the drive stopped, and Hansen was called upon to convert a 29-yard field goal for a 9-0 Cougar lead.
The game was taking a shape eerily similar to last year’s meeting in Steven’s Point, Wis., when Azusa Pacific was reduced to 3 field goals and lost 10-9 in the final minutes when UWSP scored the game’s only TD.
Santa Cruz, though, had had enough of stalled drives in nearly 6 quarters of play vs. UWSP, and late in the first half, on fourth-and-1 at the Pointer 4-yard line, he kept Hansen on the sideline and called on Brown, who not only got the first down but barreled over a few Pointer defenders to stretch into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown and a 16-0 Azusa Pacific halftime lead.
“The linemen were pushing and there was a lot power,” said Brown of his first TD. “I just followed James Brunt and pushed through.”
Azusa Pacific scored on its first possession of the second half, going 80 yards on 10 plays, capped by Brown’s second TD, dancing in from 2 yards out. The drive was kept alive by an over-the-middle popcorn-like catch by Aaron Wall when he first bobbled John van den Raadt's pass, only to snag it again after Pointer Kody Morgan punched the ball around in the air as well. When Wall finally secured the hot-potato-like ball, he raced another 20 yards downfield to the UWSP 1-yard line. Two plays later, Brown had the Cougars up 23-0.
The Cougars managed just 3 more first downs the rest of the game, but the Cougar defense kept the situation under control. Freshman CB Paul Royster picked off Beckwith on the ensuing drive for his first collegiate interception, and Shea Struiksma recovered a midfield Pointer fumble in the fourth quarter.
Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which came into the game ranked No. 16 in NCAA Division III, avoided the shutout early in the fourth quarter when Cougar Justin Jones coughed up a completed pass and Joe Mlezia scooped up the fumble and sprinted 61 yards in the opposite direction for a touchdown.
Van den Raadt put together his best performance of the season, completing a career-high 22 passes on 33 attempts for 245 yards. He accounted for 251 of the Azusa Pacific’s 353 yards of total offense. With tonight’s effort, he becomes the 13th Cougar QB to throw for over 2000 yards in a career.
“The past month has been tough but everybody put it aside going into tonight’s game,” said van den Raadt, “and now we’re 1-0 heading into the final 6 games of the season.”
Wall and Jones both finished with a season-high 7 catches, with Wall’s grabs covering 80 yards and Jones tallying 61 yards.
For the fifth straight game York led the Cougars in tackles with 10. Defensive backs Shane Henry and Trevor Love each added 6.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific is now 1-4 on the season, while Wisconsin-Stevens Point falls to 1-2.