ORANGE, Calif. -- Johnell Murphy said the holes were so big anybody could have run through them.
Maybe so. But no one could have hit those holes as fast as he did or sprint to daylight quite like Murphy, who tonight became just the tenth Cougar ever to rush for over 200 yards in a game, leading the NAIA’s No. 17-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 35-17 road victory over Chapman University before a crowd of 3,697.
To be exact, Murphy rushed for 206 yards on 28 carries and scored touchdowns on Azusa Pacific’s first 2 possessions to jettison the Cougars to a 14-3 lead midway through the first quarter.
On the opening drive he had runs of 15 and 25 yards before he capped a 6-play, 67-yard drive with a 6-yard scamper through the heart of the Panther defense, and it was just the beginning for a ground game that went on to produce a whopping 403 rushing yards, the most by a Cougar team in at least 15 years.
Murphy carried the workload in the first half while the rest of the Cougar offense uncharacteristically sputtered. He was clearly the Cougars’ only consistent weapon, and therefore he rushed for 125 yards through the first 2 quarters. Besides his own 2 rushing TDs, he set up quarterback John van den Raadt’s 7-yard go-ahead TD run by accounting for 34 yards of the 77-yard drive. It was Murphy’s effort in the final minutes of the first half that got Azusa Pacific over the hump on its way to victory.
"This was a game that challenged our focus and our ability to adapt on the fly," said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. "The past 2 games were able to roll, and sometimes you can live in a false world. Tonight there were some missteps and struggles early on that challenged us to keep our focus."
Until van den Raadt's first TD, Chapman continually frustrated the Cougars, refusing to buckle under the load of several heavy hits. Instead, Panther QBs Bret Visciglia and DeShawn Wilkins picked apart the secondary with crisp passing, and twice found WR Chris Langstaff with big TD scores, first from Visciglia with a perfect 30-yard toss into the back of the end zone, and then with Wilkins who hit a cutting Langstaff to help him break free for 72-yard catch-and-run TD. The second TD put Chapman up 17-14 midway through the second quarter, the latest the Cougars have trailed in any game this season and causing some elements of concern to creep into the Cougar camp.
"Bob Owens runs a very good program at Chapman," said Santa Cruz. "When they brought Wilkens into the game it brought a whole new dimension to their play that we had to adjust to in the middle of the game."
Murphy restored order with several big runs, and when van den Raadt couldn’t find any open receivers on a third-and-goal at the Panther 7, he called his own number for a TD with 1:39 left in the half to give Azusa Pacific a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the night.
Second half adjustments proved to be precise and for the second time this season the Cougar defense tossed a second-half shutout. Senior CB Nick Armesto, who got burned on the first Panther TD, made amends in the second half, first by deflecting a potential TD pass in the end zone and then with his first interception of the season, a takeaway at the Cougar 12-yard line that finally knocked down a pesky Chapman team that refused to go away most of the night.
"You have to make second-half adjustments, and that's where my pride is with our staff," said Santa Cruz. "The coaches walked in at halftime and communicated. They didn't yell at the players, but rather remained cool and showed the players what we had to do next. The players bought in both sides of the ball and executed."
With the Panther defense now focused on slowing Murphy, van den Raadt took advantage. The NAIA’s top rushing quarterback, van den Raadt scored on a 50-yard run midway through the third quarter, faking a hand-off to Murphy and then taking the ball around right end, sailing into the end zone untouched to put the Cougars up 28-17.
Following the Armesto interception, van den Raadt again faked a hand-off to Murphy up the middle and took the ball around right end, bouncing off a couple of Panther defenders and then out-racing the rest of the defense for a 77-yard TD run that put Azusa Pacific out of reach at 35-17.
"It was just simple reads," said van den Raadt. "They were crashing to the inside and keying on Johnell."
"That's option football at its best," said Santa Cruz. "John has grown so much and is making great decisions in our scheme. He read their defense perfectly and made the proper decision both times in keeping the ball."
Van den Raadt, who was 10-for-20 passing for a season-low 82 yards, nonetheless rushed for a career-high 162 yards on just 12 carries and tallied a career-high 3 TDs. The 368 yards that he and Murphy combined for are the most ever by a Cougar tandem, breaking the previous standard of 347 set by Jim Farmer and Darryl Richard vs. Loyola in 1973.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 4-0. Chapman, which finished with 344 yards of total offense, falls to 0-2 on the season.
"Four-and-oh is a great place to be," said Santa Cruz. "It what every team wants after 4 games, and now we get to fly across the country, and represent our school in a big game."
Azusa Pacific gets its first test of NAIA play next week when the Cougars travel to Florida to take on a vastly improved Webber International, a team that has already knocked off perennial NAIA power Georgetown College and came within a TD of knocking off FCS Lamar.
Kickoff for next Saturday's game is at 1 p.m. (EST) in Babson Park, Fla.