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AZUSA, Calif. -- Southern Oregon brought a full bag of tricks to try to ruin Azusa Pacific’s Homecoming game, but senior QB John van den Raadt put together his most complete performance of the year in his final regular season home game, accounting for 388 yards of total offense and four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) to lead the NAIA's No. 11-ranked Cougars one step closer to a playoff berth with a 51-28 win over Southern Oregon.
“A Southern Oregon win is one of the sweetest ones,” Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “It’s a rivalry that won’t exist anymore because of our move next year to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, but getting a win for the seniors to have them go out like this couldn’t make me prouder.”
Already the Cougars' career total offense record holder by well over 1,500 yards entering the game, van den Raadt also set the program's career completions record on Azusa Pacific's second offensive drive, finishing with 216 yards on 14-of-26 passing to go with his game-high 172-yard rushing performance. He is the only Cougar QB in program history to complete over 500 passes, finishing the night with 501 completions over his four-year career to move past Luke Winslow’s 490-completion career total.
“It was kind of easy (to be focused), but at the same time it was kind of hard,” said van den Raadt, one of 16 Cougar seniors honored before their final regular-season home game. “There was a lot of emotion flying around when we came out and got all the seniors going, and controlling those emotions and turning them into success on the field was a huge part (of tonight’s performance). We all know what we’ve got to do to get a good seed in the playoffs, so everybody’s really motivated to work hard in practice to ensure that spot.”
After Southern Oregon’s first two drives yielded no points, the Raiders dipped into their bag of tricks, utilizing a lateral designed to look like an incomplete pass to get the Cougar defense to relax. Austin Dodge’s backwards pass skipped off the Citrus Stadium turf to WR Mike Olson, who scooped it up and connected with fellow wideout Patrick Donahue for a 19-yard TD pass that put the Raiders on the board midway through the second quarter.
“We knew they would have some games in store for our zone-read offense, but the thing I liked was our ability to adapt, figure out what they were doing, and make the adjustments we gave them,” Santa Cruz said. “I’m really proud of our staff, because every week they’re able to see what an offense or defense wants to do against us, and they’re able to respond with X’s and O’s that allow our players to adapt quickly.”
However, by that point, the Cougars had already built up a 17-0 lead before the trick play trimmed the lead to 17-7. The 10-point margin was the closest Southern Oregon got the rest of the way, as van den Raadt led a variety of scoring drives that most often ended in the Cougars’ punishing ground game punching in one of their five rushing TDs in a 296-yard rushing performance.
“Our goal was to score on that first drive to let Southern Oregon know that we were going to keep coming at them the rest of the game,” said senior RG Joe Bolognesi, a key member of an offensive line whose efforts have helped Azusa Pacific post college football’s highest average for yards per carry (7.8) this season.
After Southern Oregon’s opening score, Azusa Pacific marched 68 yards in just 91 seconds, with breakout freshman RB Terrel Watson accounting for all the yardage in the five-play drive. The 6-foot, 205-pound freshman took a screen pass from van den Raadt 62 yards to the Raiders’ six-yard line, and he rushed for four yards on first-and-goal before punching in a two-yard score on third-and-goal to push the lead to 24-7. Watson also barreled into the end zone for the game’s opening score, a one-yard run that capped an 11-play, 65-yard opening drive.
“Early on, it was a physical game, and Southern Oregon always plays us tough,” van den Raadt said. “Establishing those big plays and getting physical with them early on really put their defense on their heels. The offensive line, the tight ends, the H-backs – we have fullback-types that are really athletic and can catch and run and block, so (the rushing game) is all predicated on them, as well as the receiving corps that’s blocking downfield. That allows us to get big runs and get the ball outside.”
After the Cougar defense got Southern Oregon’s offense off the field in five plays that produced only 15 yards on the ensuing possession, Azusa Pacific drove back into the red zone with a 10-play, 49-yard drive that took up all but one second of the remainder of the half. Van den Raadt carried four times for 23 yards on the drive and completed a pair of passes for 19 yards to set up a 25-yard field goal try for Eric DeLira, which missed wide left to send the Cougars into the half with a 24-7 lead.
Southern Oregon capped a 72-yard drive to open the second half with Donahue’s second receiving TD of the game, a 12-yard connection with Raiders QB Austin Dodge that cut the lead to 24-13. On the next play from scrimmage, van den Raadt scampered 37 yards on a keeper, and four plays later Azusa Pacific returned to the end zone when he found senior WR Matt Davis open in the end zone for a 31-yard scoring strike that pushed the lead to 31-13 just over five minutes into the third quarter.
Davis was the game’s leading receiver, making six catches for 101 yards, and Watson added 131 all-purpose yards by rushing 12 times for 50 yards while adding three catches for 81 receiving yards.
Each of the next two drives netted points for each team – Southern Oregon put a 31-yard field goal through the uprights before van den Raadt completed a 13-yard pass and rushed for a 10-yard score to cap a six-play, 62-yard drive that expanded the Cougar lead to 37-16 with 5:51 remaining in the third quarter.
Southern Oregon turned the ball over on downs when a fourth-and-goal pass from the Azusa Pacific four-yard line fell incomplete in the final minute of the third quarter. With the Cougars backed up near their own end zone, the Raider defense finally got a stop, forcing a punt that gave them the ball back near midfield early in the fourth quarter. The ensuing drive marched 57 yards on five plays, capped by a 35-yard Dodge-to-Cole McKenzie TD pass that made it 37-22 with 11:53 to play. Dodge’s rush attempt on a two-point conversion attempt was stuffed at the goal line, and the Raiders’ onside kick attempt with almost 12 minutes to play was recovered by Eric Meniefield at the Southern Oregon 38-yard line.
The Cougars chewed up all 38 yards on the ground, draining 3:24 off the clock as well, before van den Raadt punched in another score from six yards out to extend the lead to 44-22 with 8:26 to play. After another Raider scoring drive that ended in a failed two-point conversion attempt, Azusa Pacific stuck to the ground for the final scoring drive of the game, a quick three-play, 54-yard jaunt highlighted by van den Raadt’s 31-yard rush that set the Cougars up just outside the red zone. From there, junior TB Johnell Murphy took it the rest of the way for a 21-yard TD run that made it 51-28 with 3:47 remaining and gave him a nine-carry, 65-yard night.
Southern Oregon, which punted from its own 27-yard line with 2:30 left, executed back-to-back hook-and-lateral trick plays in the final minute of the game to round out its trick-play exhibition. The Raiders threw for 290 yards, with Dodge going 23-of-39 for 271 yards. Marshawn Friloux led the rushing attack, carrying 12 times for 94 yards, and Donahue caught a game-high 10 passes that netted 87 yards and two TDs.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 7-2 on the year heading into next week's regular-season finale at Menlo College. A win there would virtually assure the Cougars of a final top-10 NAIA ranking and a second consecutive NAIA playoff appearance.
“I expect extreme focus, because our whole season comes down to one week,” Santa Cruz said. “We not only want to win, we want to make a great case. We know that Menlo is a good football team, so we need to get ourselves ready to work to prepare for a great opponent.”
Southern Oregon drops to 4-5 overall, and the Raiders also close their campaign against Menlo after a bye week, hosting the Oaks on Nov. 12.