DAVIS, Calif. -- It’s hard to call a 38-point opening-night defeat a result worth celebrating, but Azusa Pacific’s 41-3 defeat at UC Davis Thursday night did exactly what it was meant to, which was to give the Cougars a launching point into its new era of competition.
It wasn’t full of highlights to remember, and it wasn’t the upset it hoped would materialize, but it was NCAA football, and Azusa Pacific was in the center of it.
“I like these challenges, our team likes these challenges, and we’re going to turn on the tape and see some areas where our youth showed up tonight,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We have a lot of guys playing college football for the first time, and we’re going to get it cleaned up to get ready to go for league play.”
The Cougars simply had no way to match up across the board with the Aggies, whose veteran-laden roster is built to compete in the NCAA’s Division I Football Championship Subdivision. UC Davis was just the fourth Div. I FCS scholarship opponent ever played by the Cougars, who are now 0-4 in those games. It may have been a rude welcome for Azusa Pacific to its new classification as an NCAA Div. II program, its first double-digit loss since losing by 14 in the 2010 playoffs, but the new level of competition in front of 5,903 fans at Aggie Stadium on a picturesque Thursday night was still welcomed nonetheless.
UC Davis took the opening kickoff and marched 74 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive, with a pass-interference penalty on third-down at the goal line giving the Aggies a fresh set of downs from the two. Dalton Turay punched it in the very next play, setting the tone for how the Aggies would go on to punish virtually every Cougar miscue.
Through its first four possessions, Azusa Pacific had fallen behind by a 20-0 margin, and the Cougars had netted only 15 total yards of offense, with three false start penalties wiping out all 15 of those yards. On the fifth possession, sophomore running back Terrell Watson rumbled 32 yards on a second-and-14 handoff to answer a UC Davis scoring drive that consisted of a single play, a 37-yard TD strike from QB Randy Wright to tight end Taylor Sloat midway through the second quarter.
Watson’s big gain not only resulted in a first down, it also put the Cougar offense into UC Davis territory for the first time in the game. The powerful 6-foot-2, 235-pound sophomore then converted consecutive third-and-long situations with pass receptions of 23 and 15 yards, and the ensuing red-zone trip resulted in the Cougars’ only score of the game, a 31-yard field goal off the foot of freshman Jamie Cacciatore, who was one of five true freshmen who saw the field along with eight others who took their first snaps as Cougars Thursday night.
Watson finished with a career-high 144 yards rushing on 17 carries, and he was held without a rushing score for the first time since Oct. 8 last year and for just the fourth time in his young 13-game career. He also caught those two passes for another 38 yards, giving him 182 of the Cougars’ 218 yards of total offense.
For UC Davis, Wright finished with 166 passing yards and 1 touchdown, completing 13-of-19 passes before giving way to the reserves later in the second half. The Aggies methodically rolled up 384 yards of total offense, taking advantage of superior field position all evening long.
Despite giving up average field position at the UC Davis 49-yard line throughout the first half, Azusa Pacific never gave up back-to-back touchdowns in the game, forcing a three-and-out series after UC Davis’ game-opening TD drive before conceding only three points when the Aggies started their next possession at the Cougar 17-yard line.
When UC Davis had to start its opening second-half possession at its own 12-yard line, sophomore safety Tyler Thornton picked off Wright near midfield to get the defense back off the field. In addition to the interception, Thornton shared the team-high in tackles (14) with linebacker Sean Barber.
UC Davis drilled five kickoffs for touchback, and only two Azusa Pacific drives started in better position than its own 25-yard line. First-year starting QB Nick Owens completed 9-of-16 passes for 81 yards, but all seven of his rushes went for negative yardage as the physical Aggie defensive line forced the first-year starter out of the pocket and into quick decisions with regularity. Tyler Tuiasosopo played the last snap of the third quarter and the entire fourth quarter, and he rushed three times for six yards while completing three-of-nine for 26 passing yards
The loss drops Azusa Pacific to 0-1, and the Cougars have never beaten a scholarship program which competes in NCAA Div. I. Up next is another long road trip, this time taking the Cougars all the way to Arcata, Calif., to take on defending Great Northwest Athletics Program (GSNAC) champion Humboldt State on Saturday, Sept 8.