GLENDORA, Calif. -- Led by a 251-yard rushing effort from its workhorse running back Nick Ricciardulli, Humboldt State rallied from an early 13-0 deficit for a 24-20 win over Azusa Pacific Saturday night at Citrus Stadium.
Ricciardulli, who entered the game ranked among NCAA Division II's top 10 nationally in rushing, went for more than 100 yards over his season rushing average, but his career-high production on a conference-record 45 carries almost wasn't enough for the Lumberjacks to avoid their third consecutive defeat.
Azusa Pacific scored on its first offensive and defensive possessions, marching 60 yards on five plays on the game's opening possession for a 6-0 lead before true freshman defensive end Matt Hackett picked up a fumble and returned it 19 yards for another score on the Lumberjack offense's first play from scrimmage.
Azusa Pacific countered Ricciardulli with its opportunistic defense, which registered a pair of takeaways, along with a balanced attack that featured a 100-yard rusher of its own in sophomore Terrell Watson, who carried 21 times for 117 yards and a touchdown. Junior quarterback Nick Owens completed three-of-three passes for 45 yards on the opening drive, including an eight-yard touchdown toss to junior tight end Kevin Schick.
Hackett, who started at defensive end for his first collegiate start, did a little bit of everything to help lead the Cougar defense. Along with eight tackles, he registered one sack plus one more tackle for loss to go with three QB hurries and his 19-yard fumble recovery that gave Azusa Pacific a 13-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
Over the final three minutes of the opening quarter, Humboldt State scored on consecutive possessions to regain the lead at 14-13 heading into the second quarter. Ricciardulli carried five times for 19 yard on the Lumberjacks' initial nine-play, 64-yard scoring drive, but meanwhile it was redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Mintz who converted on a pair of third-down passing plays. The first was a 15-yard pass on third-and-11, and the drive concluded with Mintz's eight-yard scoring strike to Marquise Deadwiler on third-and-goal.
On its next possession, Humboldt State used a pair of big Ricciardulli runs of 13 and 30 yards to set up a 20-yard scoring scamper for Daniel Wyatt that gave the Lumberjacks a 14-13 edge with 15 seconds left in an action-packed first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, the Cougar defense stuffed Ricciardulli two yards shy of the first down on fourth-and-four from the Cougar 36-yard line, and Watson rushed for gains of 18 and 43 yards before punching it in from three yards out on the fourth play of the drive to push Azusa Pacific back in front, 20-14, with 8:08 remaining in the half.
Hackett registered a third-down sack that killed the next Lumberjack possession, but Mintz connected with Deadwiler again for a 36-yard touchdown pass that gave Humboldt State the lead for good, 21-20, with two minutes to play in the second quarter. The Lumberjacks added a 42-yard field goal, the only second-half scoring play, with just over five minutes to play in the third quarter.
With the exception of another long pass play to Shick, a 34-yard reception in the final minute of the third quarter, the Cougar offense could never quite get back into gear. Azusa Pacific went three-and-out on five of its first six second-half possessions, with the long gain to Schick representing the only second-half first down for the Cougars until the final three minutes of the game. Yet for all its offensive struggles, all Azusa Pacific needed was to manufacture one scoring drive after taking over at its own 24-yard line with 2:55 to play and no timeouts remaining.
Owens converted a third-and-11 pass to Wade Struiksma for 16 yards, and the pair connected the very next play for six more yards before Owens threw three consecutive incompletions that effectively ended the game, save for a couple of Lumberjack kneeldowns in the final minute of play. Owens' fourth-down pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, sealing the victory for Humboldt State, which had lost back-to-back games by a 28-point margin before Saturday.
Other top performers for Azusa Pacific included junior linebackers Sean Barber, who tied his season-high with 14 tackles, and Jake Henderson, who registered 10 stops to help lead the Cougar defense.
Owens completed 14-of-29 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown, and he again spread the ball around efficiently, completing passes to seven different receivers.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific is now 0-7 overall and 0-6 in the GNAC heading into next week's 6:30 p.m. Homecoming game against the current conference leader, Central Washington. Humboldt State remains within a game of CWU, improving to 5-2 overall and 4-2 in GNAC play.