ATHERTON, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 10-ranked Azusa Pacific held its postseason fate entering Saturday’s regular-season finale, needing nothing more than a win to secure its playoff bid. With a dominant 49-6 road win over Menlo, the Cougars made their case for a move up the rankings and a potential first-round home game after piling up nearly 500 yards of offense that included 344 yards on the ground for college football’s top rushing offense.
“To see them raise up like this and have such a convincing win is exciting, and our success running the ball shows that a lot of our guys know our system well,” Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “Early on in the first half, we had some penalties that were stalling some drives out, so we cleaned those up. To have the defense and offense make the adjustments that they did and get rolling, I was pretty proud of them.”
Senior QB John van den Raadt was one of two 100-yard rushers on the day, carrying 14 times for 116 yards and Azusa Pacific’s first two scores, all without even playing in the fourth quarter. In so doing, he not only became the ninth player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, he also catapulted past Ben Buys and Marcus Slaten into third on the Cougars’ career rushing chart with 2,583 yards while tying Cougar legend Christian Okoye for second in career rushing touchdowns with 34.
Junior TB Johnell Murphy added a nine-carry, 78-yard effort, and with both he and van den Raadt on the bench in the fourth quarter, freshman RB Terrel Watson took over as the game’s leading rusher when he broke through the line and sprinted untouched for a 71-yard score. Watson finished with 131 yards on 12 carries, doing most of his damage in the fourth quarter when the Cougar offense didn’t attempt a single pass.
The convincing victory solidified Azusa Pacific’s position in the top 10 of the NAIA rankings, virtually assuring the Cougars of a second consecutive playoff appearance. Should Azusa Pacific move up in the rankings, so too does the possibility of playing a first-round playoff game at home improve for a Cougar team that won its final six home games by a combined score of 316-96 after suffering a season-opening 42-40 defeat to NCAA Division I FCS University of San Diego.
“I think we’ve got a great shot at going all the way, because we’ve got some really good weapons,” van den Raadt said. “Our receiving corps is great, our offensive line is great, our running backs are making plays, and our defense is making stops. I think we’ve got a great shot at making a run in the playoffs, and it’s going to be fun to see what happens. We all know what we have to do to make it past the first round of the playoffs – it’s going to take that extra little bit of focus, and that’s going to come in these next two weeks of preparation.”
It was an afternoon for milestones, and not just for van den Raadt, who also moved within 300 yards of Azusa Pacific’s career passing yardage record and tossed another two TD passes with a 10-for-17, 155-yard effort. His performance included a 44-yard TD pass to senior WR Matt Davis, who tipped the ball over a cornerback with good position around the 25-yard line before securing the ball off his own tip and scampering the final 20 yards with less than a minute left in the second quarter to give the Cougars a 28-6 halftime lead.
“I was supposed to be running a 10-yard in, but I saw Vandy roll out so I just took off deep and threw a hand up,” Davis said. “He threw it up there, and I just tried to keep my focus on the ball and I got a lucky bounce.”
Davis, who finished with six catches for 124 yards and two TD receptions, moved into Azusa Pacific’s top five in career receiving yards (1,913) and career receiving TDs (14).
“It was a priority all week to make sure we focused on Menlo because as seniors, we knew that if we didn’t win this game, it was going to be our last game,” Davis said. “We came out slow, but we held it together and just came together as a group so that we could play more football. After last year’s loss in the first round of the playoffs, we wanted to come out this year and prove it wasn’t a fluke. We’re a good team, and as seniors, we wanted to show the guys what it means to win a championship, not just talk about it.”
Murphy, meanwhile, cracked the program’s top 10 career rushers, tying Joe Schulter in the No. 10 spot with 1,705 yards in just two seasons, scoring on a four-yard second-quarter TD run.
As a team, the Cougars have rushed for a program-record 3,303 yards, shattering the previous mark of 2,558 set in 1986 by an Okoye-led backfield. This year, Azusa Pacific has three 500-yard rushers, and the Cougars average more yards per carry than any other offense at any level of college football (over seven yards per rush attempt). Murphy is just 115 yards away from giving Azusa Pacific its first-ever backfield consisting of a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in program history, and Watson’s second 100-yard game in three weeks gave him a season rushing total of 557 yards.
After the defense forced a three-and-out on Menlo’s opening possession, van den Raadt capped a quick three-play, 55-yard drive with a 27-yard scoring scamper that gave Azusa Pacific a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. On third-and-one on the ensuing Menlo possession, Thomas Reynolds broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and got around the left end for a 71-yard touchdown run, although the point-after was missed wide right to keep the Cougars in front, 7-6.
“We missed a tackle in a short-yardage situation, and Menlo was a very athletic group,” Santa Cruz said. “They were tough and physical, and their runner broke a tackle, but to see our guys come back and pitch a shutout after that is what you want to see.”
Four of the Cougars’ next five plays from scrimmage went for more than 10 yards, and van den Raadt capped the six-play, 63-yard drive with another TD, this time scoring from nine yards out through a host of Menlo defenders to push the lead to 14-6 with 7:58 to play in the opening quarter.
After surrendering 80 yards on the opening Menlo drive, the Cougar defense yielded just 119 more yards while pitching a shutout the rest of the way. The Oaks got into the red zone one more time, on the final drive of the first half, and Azusa Pacific kept Menlo on its own side of the field for the entire second half, holding the Oaks to just 59 yards of offense after halftime. In four fourth-quarter possessions, Menlo gained just 13 yards and did not register a first down, while Azusa Pacific gained 108 yards, all on the ground, in the fourth quarter. The Cougars registered 12 tackles for loss in the game, including three sacks, led by Ethan Danielson’s team-high two-sack performance.
“That touchdown run woke us up, and we decided that wasn’t going to happen again,” Danielson said. “We tightened everything up, sat down and talked about it as a team and decided six (points) was it. Every game you play so hard and for so much, but when you play a game where logistically there is so much more where you’re playing for a playoff spot, I think it just brings something out in you that you don’t even know you have.”
The second-half scoring got started with a 25-yard connection between van den Raadt and Davis that pushed the lead to 35-6 with 8:52 left in the third quarter, and Watson barreled into the end zone from 11 yards out late in the third quarter to cap a four-play, 27-yard drive set up by a Sean Barber interception deep in Menlo territory. That score made it 42-6, and Watson finished off the scoring with his 71-yarder midway through the fourth quarter.
Azusa Pacific will learn its playoff seeding and matchup information after the final NAIA Top 25 Coaches Poll is released on Sunday, Nov. 13. The Cougars wrap up the regular season with an 8-2 record, the program’s best win total since the 2004 squad went 11-3.
"We have some fundamentals and things we want to fix while we wait until Sunday to see who we’ll play,” Santa Cruz said. “Right now we need to heal up and make the most of the bye week but also be fundamentally sharp.”
Menlo, which opened the year with five wins in six games, has now dropped three in a row to fall to 5-4 on the year.