SAINT GEORGE, Utah – Deer hunting season opened in Utah this weekend, and as is the state custom, businesses and schools closed to give the natives a 4-day celebratory weekend jaunt into the wilderness. Evidently, Azusa Pacific joined the hunters, because the Cougars were nowhere to be found for at least 2 hours of a planned appearance in Hansen Stadium on the campus of Dixie State College Saturday afternoon.
Tight end-turned-quarterback Judd Thompson threw for 344 yards and 2 TDs and Mike Langston kicked 4 field goals to propel Dixie State to a 33-23 victory over Azusa Pacific before a sparse crowd in Hansen.
The victory, which came easier than the score might indicate, gave Dixie State its first-ever back-to-back victories since the school moved from the junior college ranks to NCAA Division II 4 years ago.
“The guys came out flat, and we’re just not a team that can assume anything,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “Are we younger by age? Yes, but we’ve had enough experience by now that it is not acceptable to come out flat and create a hole for ourselves.”
The Red Storm scored on 4 of its first 6 possessions to roll out to a comfortable 20-0 halftime lead, and Azusa Pacific didn’t offer much of a counter-punch. In fact, the Cougars managed just 35 yards of total offense on 29 first-half plays.
Dixie State took the opening kickoff and proceeded to shove the ball down the Cougars’ collective throat with a 9-play, 84-yard drive capped by Thompson’s 14-yard yard TD strike to Robert Evans. The Red Storm picked up 4 first downs on the drive, matching in one series what the Cougars would produce the entire first half (and one of those was a gift from the Red Storm which was flagged for roughing-the-quarterback on a third-down play).
While the Cougars struggled to get across the midfield stripe and into Red Storm territory, something they didn’t accomplish until their fourth series and well into the second quarter, Dixie State planted itself in Azusa Pacific’s half of the field, and only back-to-back Thompson incompletions on successive Red Storm drives could stop Dixie State, which had to settle for Langston 24- and 37-yard field goals and a 13-0 advantage midway through the second quarter.
Thompson, who was a tight end last year for Dixie State, is the engineer of a high-octane passing game this year, employing deep passes, balls over the middle, and screens to average 250 yards through the air through 7 games this season. It was one of those screens that proved to be the proverbial nail-in-the-coffin for Azusa Pacific.
In the waning minutes of the first half, on a second-and-12 play at the Dixie 20-yard line, Thompson connected with RB Adam Wells on a swing pass to the left, and Wells broke through several missed tackles and motored 48 yards downfield to the Cougar 32. Thompson then found Nash Fowler over the middle for a juggling, fall-on-his-back catch at the 1-yard line. Sione Tapousi finished off the drive with a 1-yard blast into the end zone to close out the first half.
Realizing he had a good thing with screens to Wells, Thompson went back to him again midway through the third quarter, first with 27-yard catch-and-run to put the ball back in Cougar territory and then with a 20-yard connection that tacked on another TD to push the Red Storm lead to 27-0.
“The big difference between this being a good team and a team having the record that it reflects now is the attention to detail,” said Santa Cruz. “Until we start taking care of details, we can’t walk around shocked at what is happening. It’s like ‘aw shucks’ if you don’t cover your guy on a screen play, that’s not acceptable around here.”
Perhaps the 90-degree weather was getting to an otherwise stifling Dixie State defense, or Azusa Pacific finally returned from the aforementioned wilderness. Whatever the reason, the Cougars reeled off a snappy 5-play, 67-yard drive, relaying the arm and legs of sophomore QB John van den Raadt, who opened the drive with back-to-back completions to Matt Davis (4 yards) and Oliver Petty (17 yards) and finished it off with consecutive runs of his own, first a 12-yard scamper and then a nifty 33-yarder off right tackle that simply memorized Red Storm defenders. It was van den Raadt’s first TD run of the season, and it seemingly sparked the entire Cougar squad.
The defense responded on the ensuing Dixie drive by stuffing yet another Wells screen pass and then picking up its first sack of the game when freshman NG Jimmy Young and senior DE Andrew Leasau dropped Thompson for a 9-yard loss to open the fourth quarter.
Jeremiah Andujo set up the first of 2 golden opportunities for Azusa Pacific by taking the following punt and zigzagging 43 yards up field, stopping at the Dixie State 22-yard line. Azusa Pacific couldn’t take advantage of the favorable field position, but senior PK Ben Hansen salvaged the Andujo return with a 37-yard field goal.
Dixie then botched the punt snap on its next possesion to give the Cougars the ball at the Red Storm 10-yard line. A Chris Brown run up the middle moved the ball to the 5, but that’s all the closer the Cougars got after Dixie State stopped Brown and van den Raadt on back-to-back runs of no gain. A subsequent chip shot of 22 yards for Hansen was blocked, and Azusa Pacific was left staring at the reality that 2 possessions inside the Red Storm 20 netted just 7 yards on 6 plays and only 3 points. Instead of trailing by just 6 points midway through the fourth quarter, Azusa Pacific was still in a deep hole at 27-10.
Red Strom defenders Nick Cragin and Wesley Beavers used a timely lateral to return the Hansen blocked field goal a combined 56 yards to set up another Langston field goal of 40 yards to push the Dixie State lead to 30-10.
Andujo, who was proving to be Azusa Pacific’s best offensive weapon, returned the following kickoff 80 yards to the Dixie 4-yard line. On the next play, Brown took a sweep right and flipped into the end zone for this seventh TD of the season to pull the Cougars to within 2 scores at 30-17 with 5:28 to play.
The Red Storm turned a pooch kickoff into a Langston 33-yard field goal.
Not about to let Andujo spin the field position again, Dixie State squibbed the ensuing kickoff, and with 1:44 left in the game, van den Raadt took advantage of a soft prevent defense, connecting with Ryan Chamberlin and Aaron Wall on back-to-back pass plays of 20 and 24 yards to put the ball at the Dixie State 9. He then tossed a fade into the left corner of the end zone where Chamberlin made a marvelous catch for his first collegiate TD.
Van den Raadt overthrew Davis on the 2-point PAT, and Dixie State recovered the on-side kick to seal the victory.
“Can we beat a team like Dixie? Absolutely, but we assume someone else will make the play,” said Santa Cruz. “All in all, the guys believe they’re in the game and they’re going to get a break, but no one is making plays. They’re missing tackles and dropping balls.”
Van den Raadt finished the game 11-for-24 passing for 110 yards, but several of the incompletions were far from his fault, including a pair of perfectly-thrown third-down and fourth-down balls that would have kept 2 drives alive but instead where dropped without even a hint of a hit from a Red Storm defender.
Dixie State produced 464 yards of total offense while limiting Azusa Pacific to 207
For the seventh time in 8 games this season, junior LB Jay York led Azusa Pacific in tackling with 11 takedowns. Freshman CB Paul Royster collected a career-high 10 tackles to go along with 2 pass deflections and 1 forced fumble.
With the loss Azusa Pacific falls to 1-7 while Dixie State moves to 4-4 and is at .500 for the first time in its brief NCAA history.