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A Way Up North to Dixie

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October 16, 2009
Gary Pine

Cougar Football: Azusa Pacific at Dixie State
Date & Site: Saturday, Oct. 17, 1 p.m. (MDT)
Hansen Stadium, St. George, Utah

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THIS WEEK: Following a 3-game home-stand, Azusa Pacific (1-6) returns to the road this week to visit NCAA Division II Dixie State College (3-4), Saturday (Oct. 17) in St. George, Utah, for 1:05 p.m. (MDT) game.

A BEEHIVE OF ACTIVITY: Azusa Pacific has made 5 previous trips to the “Beehive State,” winning just once and that coming in its most recent venture to Utah. From 1967 to 1972 the Cougars played 3 games against Southern Utah University in Cedar City and another against Westminster College in Salt Lake City, losing all 4 contests. Azusa Pacific didn’t return to Utah for another 35 years until 2007 when the Cougars visited Dixie State in St. George and won, 30-20.

SERIES NOTES: Azusa Pacific leads the all-time series with Dixie State, 2-1. The Cougars took the first 2 meetings (Dixie’s first seasons playing football as a 4-year institution) by scores of 38-20 in Azusa in 2006 and 30-20 in St. George in 2007. Dixie State beat the Cougars, 30-23, in Azusa last year, scoring a pair of fourth-quarter TDs to rally for the win.

vs. NCAA DIVISION II: Since 1996, Azusa Pacific is 13-12 vs. NCAA Division II teams. Until last year, the Cougars had taken 7 of 9 meetings and 8 of 11 vs. DII teams. However, they have now dropped 6 straight, including last year’s setback at Dixie State and a 31-10 decision to Humboldt State at home 2 weeks ago.

NATIONAL RANKINGS: Neither Dixie State nor Azusa Pacific is ranked in their respective association coaches’ polls.

CONNECTIONS: The only personnel connection between the 2 teams is Azusa Pacific’s back-up punter Chapin Fowler (jr.) and Dixie State’s Braeden Dillon (jr., OL), who were teammates at Lodi (Calif.) High.

PRESEASON ALL-INDEPENDENT: Cougars QB John van den Raadt, RB Chris Brown, OG Eric Beaton, DE Jake Jones, LB Jay York, SS Brent Willard and PK Ben Hansen have all been named to the NAIA Preseason All-Independent team as selected by the coaches of NAIA independent institutions.

HOME GROWN: Of Azusa Pacific’s 108 players, 91 hail from the Golden State as native Californians.

THE SENIOR CLASS: Just 12 seniors dot the Cougar roster, all of whom are making the trip to Dixie State, and of those seniors only fifth-year redshirts CB Brent Willard and LB Greg Neale were part of the Azusa Pacific’s last playoff team — the 2005 squad that fell at home to Montana Tech.

YOUNGER THAN YOUNG: Through 7 games this season, 66 Cougars have seen action on the field. Of those who have played thus far, 22 are freshmen (redshirt or true) and 26 are first-year Cougars (true-freshmen and transfers).

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Last year 8 true-freshmen got onto the field of play for the Cougars, including starting QB John van den Raadt. Already this season, Azusa Pacific has exceeded that number with 12 rookies seeing action this season. They include: DE Kevin Gannuscio (Alta Loma HS), WR Nathan Hinke (Pleasanton Foothill HS), Marcus Holbert (Vacaville Wood HS), OL Jeremy Bethell (Bakersfield West HS), Austin Kehmeier (Puyallup Cascade Christian HS), OL Justin Mathews (Glendora HS), Graham Paterson (Cupertino Monte Vista HS), Noah Peterman (Irvine Woodbridge HS), DE Connor Shelford (Monroe HS), Justin Souza (San Jose Pioneer High), Paul Verrette (Corona Centennial HS) and NG Jimmy Young (Lakewood HS).

ABOUT THE RED STORM: In its first full season playing as the Red Storm (school officials opted to drop the former nickname “Rebels” over a year ago), Dixie State has seemingly taken a liking to the new mascot with an improved play on the gridiron.

In actuality, the Red Storm is simply displaying the natural progress of a young program. Formerly an outstanding junior college program, Dixie State changed to a 4-year academic institution just over 4 years ago and in the process applied for and was granted NCAA Division II membership.

From a 1-10 inaugural campaign of 2006 to today’s 3-4 record, the Red Storm have made proper strides under the direction of longtime coach and Dixie State alum Ron Haun, and are now on the brink of emerging as a DII west coast power.

THUS FAR: Dixie State is a mere 6 points away from being 5-2 on the season. Only NCAA DI-AA Southern Utah (36-7) and NCAA DII No. 4-ranked Central Washington (37-6) have handed the Red Storm convincing defeats. DSC nearly picked off NCAA D-IAA Montana State (23-20) and lost on the road at conference rival Western Oregon (17-16), a setback the Red Storm avenged last week with a 31-23 victory at home over WOU. DSC opened the season with a 37-28 victory over Adams State and then rallied with 2 late TDs to knock off Humboldt State (24-20) at home.

TENDANCIES: Dixie State relies on a potent aerial attack and the strong arm of senior QB Judd Thompson, a transfer from NCAA DI Utah State. The Red Storm is averaging 253 yards passing a game, and collecting an additional but slight 49 yards on the ground. Two-thirds of DSC’s TDs have come through the air (12 vs. 6).

The Red Storm has been excellent in takeaways, generating 22 turnovers through just 7 games, including 16 interceptions, 5 of which came in last week’s 31-23 victory over Western Oregon. However, DSC too has struggled at keeping the ball and has turned it over 16 times.

BY THE NUMBERS: Thompson is completing 58% (160-for-275) of his passes and is averaging 250 yards/game. While he has thrown 12 TDs strikes, he has been picked off 13 times. The trio of Nash Fowler (30 receptions for 398 yards and 2 TDs), Skyler Ence (28, 232, 2) and Kyser Christensen (23, 409) have been Thompson’s favorite targets and have combined for 81 receptions and 7 TDs.

The Red Storm ground game is averaging just 2.1 yards/carry, but sophomore RB Tauni Vakapuna, this week’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Week, is coming off a 126-yard, 2 TD performance in last week’s victory over Western Oregon.

All-GNAC safety Wesley Beavers, who has 42 tackles, leads an opportunistic defense with 5 interceptions. He had 2 picks last week against WOU.

SANTA CRUZ SAYS: “We’re up 10-0 against Southern Oregon and it’s unfortunate that offensively we go cold. You have to give credit to their adjustments, but then you start to see the dropped balls and an untimely fumble by us. We’re a young team that we have to constantly teach how to win. We need to make plays when its time to make plays. We’ll continue to be competitive in practice and emphasize that reps are important and we need to make plays in practice in order to make them in the game.

“(SOU running back) Brandon Baldwin played a lights-out game, and they needed that kind of game from him. They didn’t want to get into any kind of drop-back passing game with us. Their larger o-line wore on us.

“I know this loss hurts our guys, but I’m confident about how tough they are. They know not to complain and to get back in the saddle and get going.

“From the outside looking in our circumstances are challenging, but from the inside, our guys remain confident. They understand the areas we need to work on and they are attacking them in practice. They love each other, and they know this is a work in progress.

“With the state that we’re at right now, everybody is real good on our schedule.

“Dixie State is consistently getting better under Ron Haun. Like all the GNAC teams, they are big. They run a 3-4 defense and like to bring pressure. Offensively, they throw the ball very well. They’ve shown an ability to hang around in games and pull out a win in the end.

We’re excited to be on the road again. I think it will be good for the guys to be together on a bus trip for 6 hours there and 6 hours back. Going to St. George is always a good trip. The people are great. So we’re looking forward to this week’s game.”