SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Gatorade showers and this kind of celebration are typically reserved for playoff-clinching victories and championship wins. Certainly not season openers.
Yet given what San Diego has done to Azusa Pacific the past 5 years, and realizing that there was an overall sense of frustration hovering around the program from recent seasons, it’s understandable why head coach Victor Santa Cruz and his defensive coordinator Brian Willmer were thoroughly doused in drink by a sideline set of Cougars.
In his Cougar debut, sophomore RB Johnell Murphy rushed for 157 yards and scored 3 second-half touchdowns, and junior QB John van den Raadt accounted for 65-percent of the Cougar offense to lead Azusa Pacific to a surprisingly convincing 42-14 victory over the University of San Diego Saturday evening in both team’s season-opener.
The victory is Azusa Pacific’s first over San Diego in 6 years and ends a 5-year drought in which the Toreros had out-scored the Cougars 161-60 and held Azusa Pacific without an offensive TD in 3 of those 5 meetings.
“I don’t know when I last got dunked in Gatorade, but it’s always cold and surprising, and I’ll take it,” said Santa Cruz. “There are a lot of guys who believe in this program and what it stands for. San Diego is a solid football program and we respect them a ton. This is a good win.”
Murphy, a Northern California native who was returning to football after a year layoff that followed a 2008 freshman season at Sterling (Kan.) College, scored TDs on 3 consecutive Azusa Pacific possessions, using runs of 2, 4 and 26 yards to turn a 14-14 game at halftime into his own personal second-half showcase. By the time he split the gut of the Torero defense for his final TD, he had put the Cougars up 35-14 early in the fourth quarter, and all that was left was an exclamation point that the Azusa Pacific defense gladly delivered in the form of a quarterback sack and fumble return for a TD.
Murphy’s scoring explosion was clearly set-up by van den Raadt, who had the head of the entire USD defense on a swivel all night long. The Toreros struggled to identify who had the ball, and often by the time they realized it was van den Raadt, he was running in their secondary and down their throat, delivering several heavy blows that had Torero defenders flat on their back and Cougar teammates hollering on the sideline.
Van den Raadt had a hand in just 1 TD on the night, and even in that he didn’t score it but rather lofted a 6-yard toss to junior TE Tyson Hetzer for his first-ever collegiate TD catch that tied the game at 7-7 midway through the first quarter. Still van den Raadt was amazing, maybe the star of the game, even if he didn’t a single point.
“One thing you just can’t say enough about Vandy is that warrior in him,” said Santa Cruz. “He is a quiet guy, but when he gets on the field, he lets it all out. He wasn’t avoiding anyone. I used to cringe a lot when he would run and lower his head but at this point it is like ‘Lord, it is in your hands.’”
The 6-foot-4 signal-caller, who was making his 19th consecutive start, fashioned one of the finest games ever by a Cougar QB, and certainly the best of his evolving career. Van den Raadt completed 15-of-25 passes for 156 yards and the aforementioned TD. He also rushed for career- and game-high 158 yards on just 12 carries. He had a hand and a leg or 2 in 314 of Azusa Pacific’s 481 yards of total offense.
Van den Raadt had 5 rushes of 15 or more yards and none was more dazzling then the 32-yarder he zipped off on a broken third-and-18 play. A double-pass option from Murphy to van den Raadt went awry when van den Raadt couldn’t determine for sure if Murphy’s toss was a lateral or not. So instead of putting the ball back in the air as the play was designed and risking a penalty, van den Raddt improvised, cutting back across the grain, breaking several tackles and getting the first down and then some. Two plays later, Murphy scored his third TD of game.
“I love hitting,” said van den Raadt, “there is nothing like it except for scoring a TD.”
Van den Raadt set up Murphy’s 2 other TDs as well, first with a 25-yard run in which he ran over one Torero defender to put the ball at the USD 2-yard line, and then with 19-yard run in which he again barreled over one Torero defensive back and put his helmet in the chest of another before falling out of bounds at the Torero 4. Van den Raadt’s 158 rushing yards are the most by a Cougar QB in a single game in at least 4 decades.
“John brings it,” said Cougar linebacker Jay York. “It’s kind of surprising how he hits defenders but it does get the whole team going when you see your quarterback out there sacrificing saying, ‘I’m down for one-blood, to sell out for the Cougars.’ That fires everyone up.”
The Cougars rushed for 325 yards, the most by an Azusa Pacific offense in over a decade and the van den Raadt/Murphy combo was the best 2-man performance by a Cougar pair since the mid-1990s.
Dating back to last year, Azusa Pacific has now won 3 straight, a first since the close of the 2007 campaign. In addition, the Cougars are averaging 45 points in those 3 games, a far cry from the 15 points they’d been averaging in the previous 19 contests.
The game had a start that was eerily similar to the Cougar setbacks of last year. On USD’s opening play from scrimmage, QB Sam Scudellari hit WR Kyle Warren in stride down the right sideline for a 61-yard TD and a quick 7-0 lead.
“We gave them some points early on but the guys kept their poise and kept moving on,” said Santa Cruz. “It was a sign of good maturity and leadership.”
Following the Hetzer TD, Cougar true-freshman RB Chris Kilmer capped a 66-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone to put the Cougars up 14-7, giving Azusa Pacific its first lead over USD since 2005 when Cougar PK Mike Betencourth made 22-yard field goal to give Azusa Pacific a 3-0 lead (USD eventually won 30-6).
Scudellari went back to Warren late in the first half for more success, and after the Cougars had been flagged for pass interference to keep a Torero drive going, Scudellari hit Warren in the corner of the end zone to knot the game at 14 heading into the locker rooms.
While Murphy was running roughshod in the second half, picking up 92 of his rushing yards, the York-led Cougar defense was stuffing USD’s offensive ideas. York finished with a team-high 8 tackles and seemingly was inspired by van den Raadt’s hits, laying the wood on USD players on 3 different plays. In fact, the whole Cougar defense swarmed USD, holding the Toreros to just 230 yards total offense, including a measly 86 yards in the second half on 38 plays (2.3 avg.).
Junior DE Kory Johnson finished off the scoring when he blindsided Scudellari and caused a fumble. As the ball kicked around in the Toreros backfield, Johnson got off the ground, picked up the loose ball and rumbled 34 yards for the final TD of the game.
“The last few years San Diego has beat us straight up,” said York, a fourth-year senior who like every other Cougar on this team had never experienced victory over a USD team. “We turned to the tide tonight. This was a very important game for us. It would set the tone for the entire season. It was a welcoming in of the new era. It was out with the old and in with the new.”
Now 1-0 on the season, Azusa Pacific comes home Saturday (Sept. 11) to take on neighboring University of La Verne in the first meeting between the 2 schools since 2003. Kickoff in Citrus Stadium is set for 6 p.m.