JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Azusa Pacific needed to punctuate its season.
The Cougars did their best to at least leave an exclamation point, which they hope will turn to a dash, meaning more to come. However, all they have at the moment is a question mark.
The NAIA’s No. 22-ranked Azusa Pacific throttled Lincoln University, 59-14, to send a message to the NAIA pollsters that the Cougars, at 6-3 on the season, are playoff worthy. The Cougars will have no other cases to make. Either for the fourth straight year they end the regular season with a victory, or they’re headed to the first round of the NAIA playoffs on Nov. 20.
“From my ten years associated with NAIA football, I think we’re a playoff caliber team,” said Azusa Pacific fifth-year Head Coach Victor Santa Cruz. “Our play has been getting better, and today we played great football.”
Azusa Pacific put together back-to-back 21-point quarters, using aerial strikes, a ground attack, and its first special teams touchdown in 3 years to blow out the Blue Tigers and hand them their worst home loss of the season.
Junior QB John van den Raadt threw for 2 TDs and ran for another 2 while Johnell Murphy, in his first full-time duty in nearly a month, rushed for 144 yards and another TD to help account for Azusa Pacific’s 453 yards of total offense and its second 59-point game of the season.
Equally as impressive was the Cougar defense with arguably its finest showing of the season. Led by junior DE Kenneth Parker and his season-high 9 tackles, including 1 of the Cougars’ 3 quarterback sacks, Azusa Pacific’s first-unit defense didn’t allow the Blue Tigers to score. The Cougars forced 3 turnovers, which were turned into 10 additional points, stopped 4 fourth-down plays, and held the Blue Tigers to just 220 yards of total offense, including 142 on the ground, more than 80 below the season average of their triple option running game.
“It was all about assignment defense and our guys did an excellent job of being responsible with the dive and the pitch,” said Santa Cruz. “I think our d-line was faster than they anticipated. We beat the cut-block on the perimeter and our secondary came up and made tackles.”
Indeed, sophomore DB Noah Peterman enjoyed his best day as a Cougar, finishing with 7 tackles.
Azusa Pacific rolled out to a 28-0 halftime lead, scoring TDs on 4 of its first 5 drives, all over 55 yards in length. Van den Raadt, the NAIA’s top rushing quarterback, capped the Cougars’ 9-play, 64-yard first possession with a 10-yard TD scamper for the only score in the first quarter.
On the opening play of the second quarter, he connected on a short pass with sophomore RB David Trifeletti, who did most of the work on a 26-yard TD reception.
Following one of Lincoln’s 3 three-and-out possessions, van den Raadt went right back to work and found a wide-open Lionel Fujioka for a 39-yard TD strike and Fujioka’s second career TD and his second score in as many weeks.
After the Cougar defense stopped Lincoln on a fourth-and-1 at the Azusa Pacific 44-yard line, the ground game went to work accounting for 51 yards on a 66-yard drive. Murphy accounted for the final 20 yards on 3 rushes, the last being an 8-yard smash-mouth run into the end zone for his eighth rushing TD of the season but his first since Sept. 25.
“Lincoln has a pretty athletic d-line, but our offensive line created seams, and Vandy did a good job on his reads,” said Santa Cruz. “Our line played pounding football today and it really paid off well in the end.”
Lincoln standout DB O’Hara Fluellen intercepted van den Raadt on the third play of the second half and returned the ball 68 yards for Lincoln’s first TD of the game. However, the Cougars came right back with an answer of their own when junior DB Justin Jones, who just this week was put on the kick-return unit, took the ensuing kickoff 61 yards in the opposite direction for Azusa Pacific’s first special teams’ TD since 2007 and the first kickoff return for a score since 2002.
Moments later, Jones dazzled on a punt return, taking it back 53 yards to set up van den Raadt’s 17-yard TD run, his team-leading 13th rushing TD of the season that put the Cougars up 42-6.
Before the close of the third quarter, Azusa Pacific parlayed another Blue Tiger fumble into a TD when sophomore RB Oliver Petty finished off a 5-play, 63-yard drive with a 5-yard TD run. Back-up QB Justin McPherson set up the score with a 35-yard run of his own.
With the game well in hand and no risk at stake, freshman Chris Duke trotted onto the field early in the fourth quarter and booted a 52-yard field, the third longest kick in program history and a personal best by a 9 yards.
After Lincoln scored on the Cougars’ second-unit defense, Petty closed out the scoring with a 19-yard TD run for the first multi-TD game of his career. He finished with a career-high 73 rushing yards.
Azusa Pacific tallied 341 rushing yards for their third 300-yard game of the season and the seventh best single-game total in program history.
With the Cougars chewing up yards on the ground, there was little need for van den Raadt to throw the ball, but he did complete 9-of-15 passes for 112 yards. His 140 yards of total offense, put him over 4,500 for his 29-game Cougar career, second best in program history.
The victory snaps Azusa Pacific’s 10-game losing streak to NCAA Division II schools and is the Cougars’ first win over a DII foe since they downed Dixie State, 30-20, in 2007. While Lincoln, which falls to 1-9, has another game next week, Azusa Pacific must sit and wait to see if it can climb into the top 20 of the final NAIA poll by virtue of today’s win and no contest next week.
If so, the Cougars will play again in the first round of the 16-team NAIA playoffs. If they don’t crack the top 20, the 2010 season ended today with an exclamation point.
“I think we’ve made a pretty good case to be in the playoffs,” said Santa Cruz, “but in the end, if we aren’t in, we have only ourselves to blame.”