AZUSA, Calif – Azusa Pacific launched a beacon signal from the far reaches of the west coast to remind the nation that the Cougars still have an obvious presence in the NAIA.
Azusa Pacific used a dominating defense and a consistent offensive attack to flatten the NAIA’s No. 14-ranked Langston University, 37-3, in the Cougars’ 2009 season finale. The victory, so thorough and complete by an Azusa Pacific program that had lost 16 of its previous 20 games, sends Langston’s playoff hopes into a perilous tailspin that has the Lions teetering on the brink of postseason oblivion entering Sunday’s selection of the NAIA 16-team playoff field.
“The nation is going to have its opinion about us, and I can’t make up their mind for them,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz in reaction to any potential message the victory might send to NAIA member institutions. “What I know is that Azusa Pacific is a very good football team. We’ve had a tough road because of the schedule we have to play, but in the end of it you never get better if you aren’t playing tough competition. I felt a lot of tonight’s victory has to do with our guys swinging with some pretty tough teams throughout the entire season.”
As the only NAIA school in California and throughout the southwest with football, Azusa Pacific has had to fill its schedule with all-comers of all divisions, and typically they have been powerhouse programs such as current NCAA DII No. 1-ranked Central Washington and 5-time NAIA champ Carroll College. The Cougars have had to sled uphill against some of the nation’s best football teams in order to complete a schedule that over the past 2 seasons has featured just 3 NAIA schools while 9 different NCAA members have been logged on the Cougar slate. In truth, the Cougars had become a forgotten entity in NAIA football. Until tonight.
Perhaps their numbers could have been better but to be honest, the Cougars worked with only half a field all night when considering that their average starting line of scrimmage on 13 possessions was their own 47-yard line.
Bolstered by the kick and punt returns of sophomore Jeremiah Andujo and the benefactor of a Cougar defense led by All-American candidate junior LB Jay York and his game-high 11 tackles that continually pinned the Lions deep in their territory, the Cougar offense needed just 40 yards or less of production on each of 4 possessions to assume a 20-3 lead by late in the third quarter, and by that time it was clear through the play of the Cougar defense that Azusa Pacific was going to post the most lopsided upset in the NAIA today.
Langston made its first-ever California visit with a finger-waving attitude that produced on average 362 yards of offense and 32 points per game. The Lions return to the Sooner state with their tail between their legs after managing just 171 yards and its lowest point tally of the season.
York and his defensive mates were so overwhelming in their onslaught that Langston could produce only 35 yards of total offense on 32 plays over the course of 9 consecutive possessions. After kicking a field goal to start the second quarter, Langston never wandered back into Cougar territory until an 82-yard kickoff return put the ball at the Cougar 13-yard line 2 minutes into the fourth quarter. Yet that Lion possession ended 2 plays later when Cougar LB Dane Russell recovered a Langston fumble, 1 of the Cougars’ 3 takeaways on the night.
“We were able to have a speed and a tempo about ourselves tonight that was faster than what I think Langston is used to seeing,” said Santa Cruz.
The Cougars continually befuddled Langston QB Darrion Lewis, coming up with a season-high 8 quarterback sacks while causing him to misfire on 11-of-18 passes. Like the rest of the Langston offense, Lewis was put in a Cougar stranglehold, producing a mere 55 yards of total offense, more than 120 below his season average.
“We knew what they wanted to do with their offense,” added Santa Cruz, “and we able to mix up our coverages between man and zone and confuse Lewis and get some coverage sacks.”
Playing in their final game as a Cougar, seniors Andrew Leasau and Sal Gutierrez each tabulated 2 sacks. Sophomore DE Jake Jones fashioned his best game as a Cougar with a career-high 10 tackles to go along with a sack and 2 quarterback hurries.
Azusa Pacific took a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Following an Andujo 37-yard punt return, the Cougars assumed their first possession at the Lion 35-yard line and need just 6 plays to go up 7-0 on a Brown 2-yard blast into the end zone.
Langston’s Casey Williams then muffed the ensuring Cougar pooch kickoff and freshman Nathan Hinke recovered for Azusa Pacific at the Lion 41.
Senior PK Ben Hansen followed with his first of 3 field goals on the night, a 30-yarder. After missing a 52-yarder early in the second quarter, Hansen came back 3 minutes later with another 52-yard attempt that this time he boomed through the uprights with a boot that would have been good from 60 yards, giving the Cougars a 13-3 lead at halftime.
A change in field direction and halves did not help a sputtering Langston offense, which was tagged with its first of what would be 3 consecutive 3-and-outs to start the second half. The Lions second drive of the second half ended with a York 8-yard sack of Lewis deep in Lion territory. A short punt gave Azusa Pacific the ball on the Langston 40 and the Cougars motored downfield on 8 plays, aided as they had been on their first scoring drive by back-to-back Aaron Wall receptions of 19 and 7 yards that put the ball at the Lion 11. Brown capped the drive with a 1-yard leap over left tackle to move the Cougar lead to 20-3.
Azusa Pacific made quick work on its next possession, again getting the ball near midfield. After an 11-yard completion to Wall to start the drive, van den Raadt hit a streaking Matt Davis over the middle of the field for a 41-yard TD strike and a 27-3 Cougar lead. For Davis, who came into the game averaging an NAIA second-best 19.5 yards per grab, it was his tenth catch of more than 30 yards this season.
As the third quarter closed, senior Brent Willard, who was playing in his 40th and final game as a Cougar, forced another Lewis fumble on a safety blitz that Leasau recovered at the Langston 40. Hansen converted the takeaway into a 32-yard field goal.
The Cougars closed the scoring with its only lengthy drive of the night, and even then they made quick work of it. Azusa Pacific zipped 80 yards downfield on 6 plays, 48 of which came on a van den Raadt keeper around left end. A 14-yard run by Brown followed by an 11-yard catch by Wall set up Brown’s 1-yard plunge into the end zone with 9:24 left in the game.
Late in the contest, Langston moved downfield to the Cougar 8-yard line but on fourth-and-goal, Cougar senior LB Joe Porta deflected a pass that made sure the Lions would not get into the end zone for the night. Azusa Pacific ran out the final 2:17 to finish the season with its second straight win.
“I’m really happy for these seniors,” said Santa Cruz. “All of them made key plays in this win tonight and it’s great that they can go out on a high note. They’ve had to endure some licks through their 4 years, but they’ve done a great job keeping the rudder straight on this ship, and it’s nice that they enjoy some of the fruit of their labor here at the end.”
Azusa Pacific had gone 5 years without a player rushing for 3 or more TDs in a game. Now in back-to-back contests, van den Raadt and Brown have each tallied 3 running TDs in a single outing. Brown closed the game with 81 rushing yards on 18 carries and finishes his 2-year Cougar career 12th on Azusa Pacific’s all-time rushing chart with 1,507 yards.
Van den Raadt was 18-for-35 for 223 yards and rushed for another 56 yards on 8 carries. He closes the year with 524 rushing yards, the second highest rushing tally ever by a Cougar QB.
Wall registered a team-high 7 catches for 76 yards. Andjuo, who produced 152 all-purpose yards, 82 of which came on 5 punt returns, had 4 grabs for 53 yards.
Hansen’s 3 field goals, which pushed his school-record career total to 41, combined with his 4 PATs gave him 13 points on the night and moved him into second place on Azusa Pacific’s all-time scoring chart with 207 points and past Cougar legend Christian’s Okoye’s 204.
For the third straight year Azusa Pacific closes a campaign with a win and finishes at 3-8. Langston, which earlier in the win had a victory stripped from its slate because it was against a prep school, falls to 7-3 and now awaits word Sunday morning from the NAIA playoff selection committee.