AZUSA, Calif. -- What a difference a playoff appearance makes.
After ending a four-year playoff drought in 2010, Azusa Pacific now bears the weight of expectations that haven’t been this high for a Cougar team since the middle of the previous decade. With a No. 15 preseason NAIA ranking, paired with a 2011 schedule that features seven of the 10 games at home, Azusa Pacific and its 17 returning starters have every reason to believe they have the talent and experience to produce not only a postseason encore but a legitimate chance at a mid-December trip to Rome, Ga., for a shot at a national title.
Expectations are high for good reason, chief among them the return of four-year starting QB John van den Raadt, one of the nation’s top dual-threat signal-callers who was named the 2010 NAIA Independent Player of the Year in 2010, throwing for 1,638 yards with a team-high 927 rushing yards while accounting for 28 TDs. Joining van den Raadt are six other returning offensive starters that include junior TB Johnell Murphy and four of the offensive linemen who helped pave the way for a Cougar ground attack that chewed up over 250 yards per game on the ground last year.
Spearheaded by van den Raadt’s dual-threat capability, the Cougars’ spread offense has developed into a thing of beauty, a well-oiled machine that averaged 36 points and 424 yards per game in 2010 for the program’s best offensive output in over decade. The well-balanced attack starts with the aforementioned ground game, while van den Raadt’s evolution as a passer resulted in 1,638 yards through the air with a career-best completion percentage of 58 percent (135-for-232) and a 14-10 TD-to-INT ratio.
Like their offensive counterparts, the Azusa Pacific defense is loaded with experience, bringing seven starters back from a group that ranked 16th in the NAIA in total defense a year ago. Leading the way is senior DE Jake Jones, whose 10.5 sacks ranked third in the nation and helped the Cougars post the NAIA’s No. 2 pass defense in 2010, allowing just 132.1 yards per game through the air.
Missing from the heart of the defense is MLB Jay York, but the Cougars are big, deep, and athletic throughout the defense, and a number of quality returnees surround sophomore Sean Barber as he steps into York’s formidable shoes at middle linebacker. Among those are Jones and junior Kory Johnson, who slides into the bandit position. Jones stole the headlines with his 10.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, but Johnson was the team’s No. 4 tackler (39 tackles including 4.0 for loss) and impacted the game in a variety of ways, finishing the year as the team leader in QB hurries (three), fumble recoveries (two) and forced fumbles (three), along with one of the Cougars’ two blocked kicks.
Anchoring the middle of the defensive line is 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior NT Jimmy Young, who ranked second on the team in sacks (2.0) and fourth in tackles for loss (4.5) a year ago, and the secondary features a trio of returning senior starters in CB Paul Royster (two interceptions, four pass breakups), SS Hayden Shaw (34 tackles, one interception), and FS Shea Struiksma (one interception, three pass breakups).
In all, the Cougars return 44 letterwinners from 2010’s 6-4 campaign, and the senior class of 17 is joined by another 30 juniors for a veteran group that knows first-hand the unforgiving fine line that exists between success and failure. Five losses by seven points or less in back-to-back eight-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 failed to squelch Azusa Pacific’s drive to return to national prominence, and the lessons learned from those two years of hard knocks resulted in last year’s resurgence of a Cougar program whose seven playoff appearances since 1998 ranks tenth among NAIA football programs.
At first glance, the 2011 schedule is much more manageable than any recent slate over the past decade. A year ago, Azusa Pacific earned its playoff stripes on the road, playing only once at home after the third week of the season. That same mile marker this season merely represents the halfway point of the opening homestand. The Cougars open the year at home for six consecutive weeks, starting with the same four opponents it defeated by an average of 29 points last year.
First up is San Diego, continuing the longest-running series in Azusa Pacific football history with the 44th meeting between the programs. The Cougars opened 2010 with a 42-17 road win over the Toreros before collecting three more wins over NCAA Div. III foes for a 4-0 September start. The same trio of Div. III foes (La Verne, Whittier, and Chapman) visit Citrus Stadium to round out the opening month.
For only the second time in program history, Azusa Pacific hosts three non-California NAIA programs in the regular season, and all three visit southern California in the month of October. The only other time the Cougars hosted three NAIA opponents in the regular season was in 2007, when it knocked off Malone (Ohio) and Southern Nazarene (Okla.) but suffered a narrow 14-13 loss to Southern Oregon.
In five years under head coach Victor Santa Cruz, Azusa Pacific is 4-3 at home against NAIA competition, with all three defeats coming to either Southern Oregon or perennial NAIA power Carroll (Mont.). In fact, the four NAIA opponents who traveled to California from east of the Rockies were sent back home with a loss by an average margin of 20 points. With only a small handful of NAIA programs willing to schedule Azusa Pacific, those select few matchups with NAIA teams are viewed under a microscope by pollsters around the nation who are responsible for evaluating the Cougars’ postseason resume.
Up first on the NAIA docket is Webber International (Fla.) in an Oct. 1 rematch of the Cougars’ first setback last year, a 13-10 road defeat to the Warriors. The six-week home stretch concludes when defending Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference champion and preseason No. 12-ranked McPherson (Kan.) College makes its first-ever visit to California, taking on the Cougars Oct. 8.
The opening road trip is an Oct. 15 matchup with Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, in a preview of a future Great Northwest Athletic Conference rivalry when Azusa Pacific joins the GNAC beginning in 2012. The Cougars are back on the road the next week, taking their longest trip of the year to take on Lindenwood (Mo.), which is in the second year of a three-year NCAA Division II membership candidacy period and has been expelled from NAIA postseason play throughout the remainder of its NCAA membership process.
The Oct. 22 Homecoming opponent is fellow NAIA independent Southern Oregon, which had won four in a row in the series with Azusa Pacific until the Cougars rolled to a 38-13 road win over the Raiders last year. The regular season wraps up with a visit to Menlo College in the Bay Area suburb of Atherton, renewing an in-state rivalry whose last installment came a decade ago.