GLENDORA, Calif. -- We’ve all been there – caught in a moment where your mouth speaks an answer and you don’t know exactly why.
Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz had one of those moments Friday night, when he inadvertently guaranteed his team’s first victory of the year at Azusa Pacific’s annual Dinner Rally fundraiser, but his team backed it up in front of a Homecoming crowd of 4,355 by stunning Central Washington in a 24-17 victory Saturday evening at Citrus Stadium.
“You know, it came out of my mouth last night at Dinner Rally, and when it was all over I told my Athletic Director (Gary Pine), ‘I think I just guaranteed a win,’ ” Santa Cruz recalled. “I just know this team and what they’ve done, and with their perseverance, you saw them getting better, you saw them getting closer, you saw them more focused, and every week they were growing up. This is a good team, and I told these guys that when it clicked, it was going to be sweet, and I couldn’t wait to be there for them.”
Junior QB Nick Owens connected on a third-and-six play for a 53-yard TD strike to sophomore Kyle Dravis with 49 seconds to play, pushing Azusa Pacific in front, 24-17, and the Cougar defense finished the job when Nick Grunsky picked off Ryan Robertson at the Cougars’ 11-yard line with just 12 seconds left to seal the win.
“The defense was running exactly what we wanted, and Nick Owens put a ball in there that anybody could catch,” Dravis said. “I was just lucky to be on the other side of it. I think I blacked out for a second – I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a lot of noise. Celebrating on the sidelines was more tiring than running the actual route.”
Owens, Dravis, and Grunsky, along with all their teammates, were in attendance at Friday night’s fundraising event, as Santa Cruz and the football program were featured in front of over 700 attendees, and they heard their coach describe how much he enjoyed coaching this team, regardless of the winless record through the first seven games of Azusa Pacific’s first year of NCAA Division II competition. He went on to guarantee his team would win on Saturday night, a rare proclamation from a coach whose enthusiasm can often be contagious but is usually tempered with a keen dose of reality.
“In the coaching world, when you go back home you start thinking about the next week,” Santa Cruz said. “It’s a great moment for the program. I couldn’t be happier for the school, the program, and where we’re going. There’s a lot of hard work ahead, but this is what you want – you want to win.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific picks up its first victory of the season, and along with it the Cougars have shaken up the GNAC race by handing Central Washington just its second conference defeat of the year. The Wildcats now sit in a three-way tie for first with Humboldt State and Western Oregon, who both won earlier in the day.
“You’re going to turn the tape on and see a lot of things we need to improve, but the plays we needed to have happen went our way tonight,” Santa Cruz said. “A Division II victory means more to me for these guys, just for who they are and what you believe they deserve because they’ve worked so hard. You’ve got to go on the field and you’ve got to win, so beating a Central Washington team that’s leading our league is a great win. Central is a tough team, and the way they came back shows you the type of the resolve Coach Bennett has with his guys.”
Dravis caught three passes on the night for a team-high 131 yards, and his 53-yard score wasn’t even his longest reception. That distinction belonged to a 64-yard screen pass on the opening play from scrimmage in the second half, which set up Terrell Watson’s 14-yard touchdown run that gave the Cougars a 10-3 lead early in the third quarter.
The defense forced consecutive three-and-outs which included one third-down sack by junior LB Jake Henderson and a third-down pass breakup by sophomore safety Tyler Thornton. On the second play of the ensuing drive, sophomore running back Ronald Douglas dashed 73 yards for a touchdown, pushing the Cougars ahead 17-3 with 4:59 to play in the quarter. Those big plays helped Azusa Pacific’s offense explode for over 200 yards in the third quarter after picking up only 91 yards of total offense in the first half of the contest.
The Wildcats started their next three possessions from their own 40-yard line or better, but their opening fourth-quarter drive stalled when junior LB Ethan Danielson registered a third-down sack that forced Central Washington into a field goal attempt. The 41-yard try was blocked by junior CB Silas Goma, protecting Azusa Pacific’s 14-point edge. They fared much better on the next drive, however, with Demetrius Sumler capping a 50-yard drive with his first score of the game, a one-yard TD run.
Central Washington went for, and succeeded in recovering, an onside kick that resulted in an extra possession. After Robertson was sacked by Danielson and Manako Tuifua to force fourth-and-18, he completed a 21-yard pass to Anthony Spain inside Azusa Pacific’s 10-yard to keep the Wildcat drive alive. The very next play, Robertson tossed a nine-yard TD pass to Sumler that tied the game at 17-17.
Azusa Pacific kept the ball on the ground for the next four plays, marching 50 yards on four rushes plus a face-mask penalty before Owens was sacked and Watson dropped for a loss on consecutive plays to back the Cougars up 11 yards to the Central Washington 27. Freshman K Jamie Cacciatore’s 44-yard field-goal try missed wide to the left with 3:20 remaining, but Thornton made back-to-back stops that helped hold Sumler to eight yards on three consecutive rushes. The ensuing punt set up Azusa Pacific’s game-winning scoring drive, which advanced 23 yards from the Cougar 24 to set up Owens’ dramatic touchdown pass to Dravis, which he threw off one foot as he dodged a Central Washington rusher.
“I knew that Kyle was a fast enough guy that if I got some time and we put it over the top, it was something that had been there all night and we had just missed it,” Owens said. “This program is on the rise, and to have the crowd so into it, and to have the coaches continue to work with us every week when you’re 0-7, this felt great. Coach Santa Cruz promised it, and we had to come through.”
After Dravis scored, he was penalized for a celebration penalty, which was enforced on the kickoff. Cacciatore’s short kick was fielded at the Wildcat 45-yard line by LB Louie Bruketta and returned 18 yards into Azusa Pacific territory. The Cougars were offsides on the kick, tacking on an extra five yards to the return while setting the stage for the Wildcat offense to take over at the Azusa Pacific 32-yard line with 43 seconds remaining. Robertson scrambled 14 yards on the first play, but he threw consecutive incompletions to set up the game-clinching third-down interception from Grunsky, who broke up a Robertson pass over the middle on the previous play.
Sumler, who had 60 yards rushing at halftime on 18 first-half carries, was held to just 13 rushing yards on six carries in the second half. The Central Washington offense, which ran the ball 65 times in 77 plays when the teams squared off the first time on Sept. 22, had to throw the ball 40 times against Azusa Pacific, which never trailed at any point in the contest. Sumler added 51 receiving yards, all in the second half, on four receptions. Central Washington was led by Spain’s nine-catch, 162-yard receiving effort, with Robertson completing 18-of-36 passes for 253 yards.
“Hats off to the defensive staff led by (defensive coordinator) Brian Willmer, because it was a great game plan they put together to stop the run knowing that the last time we played them they just ran all over us,” Santa Cruz said. “We can pressure people – that’s one of the things our guys do well, so the fact that we could stop the run and make them have to get to their empty package is a huge credit to them.”
Both teams converted just one-of-three field goal attempts, with both successful attempts coming in the second quarter to send the teams into halftime tied at 3-3. Cacciatore drilled a 36-yard attempt and missed from 44 and 51 yards, while Wildcat placekicker Matt Burke hit from 27 yards to go with a 40-yard miss and a 41-yard attempt which was blocked by Goma early in the fourth quarter.
Owens completed nine-of-18 passes for exactly 200 yards, while Watson led the Cougars’ ground attack with 82 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“Nick’s a very fast decision maker, and that helps out a lot,” Santa Cruz said. “When he does break the pocket, he can run well, and I love what happens with him in the open field. The offensive line did an amazing job for him, and being able to get the run game going took the pressure off of our pass game, which allowed us to get some of those big plays.”
Azusa Pacific’s defense was led by Thornton, a strong safety who registered a game-high 14 tackles with a pass breakup. Grunsky added eight tackles and a breakup to his game-clinching interception, and Danielson registered 1.5 sacks as part of his six-tackle effort. In addition to three sacks of the Central Washington quarterback, the Cougars also notched eight hurries. Junior DE Matt Moody led that category with three hurries, and Goma’s field-goal block was the fourth kick he’s blocked this season.
The Cougars had never beaten Central Washington in five previous regular-season meetings, with the only previous win in the all-time series coming in the 1998 NAIA quarterfinals. That 35-28 win also avenged a lopsided regular-season loss on the road to the Wildcats.
Azusa Pacific has one home game remaining, a Nov. 10 visit from Simon Fraser. The Cougars have back-to-back road games before the season finale, visiting Western Oregon next week before traveling to Dixie State in St. George, Utah, on Nov. 3.