AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific did just about everything it wanted in its home opener. The only thing that didn’t go its way was the final score, as Dixie State scooped up a fumble off the turf for a 32-yard fumble return, completing a late rally that handed the Cougars a 24-22 defeat for their third straight loss at the beginning of its first season of competition within the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Azusa Pacific had all the ingredients in place for a big win in front of a crowd of 2,850, yet it was Dixie State which capitalized on a few big plays that allowed the Red Storm to sneak off with its first road win since Oct. 2, 2010.
The Cougars revived their powerful running game, grinding out more rushing yards in Saturday’s contest than in its first two games of the 2012 season combined. The well-balanced 261-yard rushing attack was paced by Terrell Watson’s 25-carry, 87-yard performance, and it allowed Azusa Pacific to control the time of possession by a margin of nearly 15 minutes.
The Cougar defense was even better, holding the Red Storm to just 232 yards of total offense and just 44 offensive plays. In fact, the defense only surrendered 12 points when it was on the field. The edge in special teams seemed to favor Azusa Pacific, as well, with Dixie State missing on all four of its point-after touchdown attempts.
However, the Red Storm scored all four touchdowns on quick scoring drives that lasted less than three minutes. In fact, two of the drives encompasses just a single play, starting with Cache Morgan’s 100-yard kickoff return after Oliver Petty had given the Cougars a second-quarter lead with a 25-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass from Tyler Tuiasosopo. The scoring pass was Azusa Pacific’s first touchdown through the air this season, and it briefly gave the Cougars a 9-6 lead after the point-after was blocked.
Azusa Pacific seemingly had the game wrapped up after scoring field goals on back-to-back fourth-quarter drives to take a 22-12 lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the contest. That’s when Dixie State backup quarterback Kaleo Nawahine guided the Red Storm on a seven-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, hitting Zack Fox from 14 yards out to cut the Cougars’ lead to 22-18 with exactly five minutes left in the game. Nawahine registered all five of his completions and passing yardage for the game during the 82-yard drive.
Just two plays into the ensuing Azusa Pacific drive, linebacker Nick Largent knocked the ball free from Cougar quarterback Tyler Tuiasosopo. With bodies flying into the pile to recover the fumble, cornerback Ray Chapman scooped the ball off the turf and scooted 32 yards for the go-ahead score with 3:54 remaining.
With a chance to get in position for a game-winning score, Azusa Pacific chewed up 32 yards on its first six plays of the potential go-ahead drive. However, on third-and-six from the Dixie State 33-yard line, Petty was stuffed for no gain, and freshman kicker Jamie Cacciatore’s 49-yard field-goal attempt was blocked at the line by Matt Tanuvasa to clinch the Red Storm’s first back-to-back wins since the 2009 season.
Petty finished with 84 rushing yards on 10 carries, and Tuiasosopo tallied 74 yards on 16 rush attempts while completing seven-of-13 passes for 87 yards through the air. He also connected with Petty for the Cougars’ first passing touchdown of the season with a second-quarter screen pass that Petty took 25 yards into the end zone for the score.
Cacciatore hit all three of his field goal attempts inside 40 yards converting from 32 yards in the first quarter and again from 23 and 26 yards in the fourth quarter. Five of the six extra-point attempts in the game were either blocked or missed, with each team recording a PAT block on the first extra-point attempt by the opposing team. Dixie State was 0-for-4 on PATs, including a block by freshman Talaisi Taueli following the Red Storm’s first touchdown of the game.
With Azusa Pacific leading 16-12 with five seconds to play in the first half, Dixie State elected to keep its offense on the field rather than attempt a field goal, and Griff Robles’ pass to the end zone was hauled in for an interception by Nick Grunsky. Robles finished the game with a team-high 55 rushing yards on 13 carries including a first-quarter touchdown run from 39 yards, and he threw for another 49 yards on six-of-12 passing.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 0-3 overall and 0-2 in GNAC play. The Cougars continue the GNAC slate on Saturday, Sept. 22, with a visit to Central Washington.
GNAC scores: Saturday, Sept. 15
Dixie State 24, Azusa Pacific 22
Humboldt State 41, Simon Fraser 21
Central Washington 21, Western Oregon 14 (OT)