ARCATA, Calif. -- The first conference game in Azusa Pacific football history couldn’t have started much better, but NCAA Division II’s No. 17-ranked Humboldt State quickly recovered to score 28 straight points while handing the Cougars a 42-17 defeat in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
“I leave this game with a great deal of optimism, because I saw our team go toe-to-toe with the number 17 team in the country tonight,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We made some crucial mistakes that we’ll have to work out this week, but the thing I liked seeing was that our team didn’t quit and fought to get back into this game.”
Despite being outgained by only 55 yards, Azusa Pacific committed a pair of costly turnovers near the beginning of each half that led to touchdowns, and the Cougars gave away another 101 yards due to penalties throughout the contest.
The GNAC newcomers forced the defending conference champions into a three-and-out possession on the game-opening drive, and Taylor Schablaske brought the ball back into Lumberjack territory with a 23-yard punt return that gave the Azusa Pacific offense a short field at Humboldt State’s 36-yard line.
That field position was as charitable a welcome present the Lumberjacks would offer, and the Cougars weren’t able to capitalize, coughing up a fumble on its first play from scrimmage which was the first of two costly fumbles scooped up for long returns by the host Lumberjacks. Slot receiver Ed Dillihunt lost the ball when he was hit after a one-yard gain, and Chris Peterson picked the ball up off the turf and brought it back to the Azusa Pacific 30-yard line.
Two plays later, Humboldt State was in the end zone on Alex Rump’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Victor Spencer, and the Lumberjacks already had a 7-0 lead less than two minutes after the opening kickoff. The Lumberjacks scored its next three touchdowns on the ground, with Nick Ricciardulli rushing for two of them including an eight-yard scamper midway through the second quarter that gave Humboldt State a 28-0 lead.
From that point on, the Cougar defense did its part to keep Azusa Pacific within striking distance. After giving up four scores on drives which Humboldt State had an average starting field position of the Cougar 46-yard line, the defense didn’t give up another first down for nearly 30 minutes of play. They held the potent Lumberjack offense to just 19 yards over the next five possessions until Humboldt State finally generated an 11-play, 45-yard drive that resulted in a missed field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
That allowed the offense to take advantage of great field position for a four-play, 29-yard scoring drive that resulted in the Cougars’ first touchdown of the season, a one-yard Tyler Tuiasosopo run that cut the deficit to 28-7 with 1:42 remaining in the second quarter. Azusa Pacific also got the opening possession of the second half, but on fourth-and-one from the Humboldt 45-yard line, a Terrell Watson fumble was picked up and returned 62 yards for touchdown by safety Jeremiah Maluia. That pushed the lead back to 28 points at 35-7, although the Cougar offense kept its momentum with an eight-play, 63-yard drive that resulted in a 29-yard Jamie Cacciatore field goal with 7:04 left in the third quarter.
“Our defense played very tough, and our offense started to find an identity,” said Santa Cruz.
After another three-and-out forced by the defense, which was followed by a 24-yard punt return from Tyler Thornton that set the Cougars up near midfield, Azusa Pacific took another eight plays to march downfield for another score. The big play of the drive was an 18-yard pass hookup between Tuiasosopo and Wade Struiksma, and Watson punched it in the last five yards for the touchdown, which pulled the Cougars within 35-17 late in the third quarter.
Forced to punt on three consecutive possessions, Azusa Pacific’s stingy defense began to show its vulnerabilities in the fourth quarter. A 45-yard drive for Humboldt State resulted in a blocked field goal, but the next Lumberjack drive cashed in for seven points on an eight-play, 40-yard drive capped by Rump’s six-yard scoring toss to tight end Alex Hiebert.
Watson led the Cougar rushing game with 76 yards on 13 carries, and Tuiasosopo completed 13-of-28 passes for 132 yards. Humboldt State’s offense was led by Ricciardulli’s 108-yard rushing effort on 28 carries, and Rump was 11-for-22 passing with 116 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cougar defense was led by Jake Henderson, who registered a team-high 12 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. Henderson also forced a fumble, and he had an interception along the sideline that was nullified due to a roughing-the-passer personal foul.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 0-2 overall and 0-1 in GNAC play as it returns home for its first home game of the 2012 season on Saturday, Sept. 15, vs. Dixie State.
GNAC scores: Saturday, Sept. 8
Humboldt State 42, Azusa Pacific 17
Central Washington 56, Simon Fraser 28
Dixie State 24, Western Oregon 10