MONMOUTH, Ore. -- Azusa Pacific’s Homecoming upset over Central Washington last week certainly raised some eyebrows, but Saturday’s 19-3 domination of Western Oregon established the Cougars as the team absolutely nobody at the top of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings wants to face down the stretch.
For the second straight week, Azusa Pacific knocked the GNAC leader out of first place, this time holding the league’s hottest team to just a field goal while methodically converting all five of its own red-zone chances into points.
“I’m impressed with how the team continues to play hard one play at a time,” Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “Especially in a game like this, you have to be consistent in every play. My hat’s off to the special teams, because they were able to stay in there and play the field position game. It’s a great team victory, and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys because they’re doing what it takes to build a great foundation and a great program.”
Freshman kicker Jamie Cacciatore was the primary beneficiary of those opportunities, hitting four field goals within 35 yards, and sophomore running back Terrell Watson put the game out of reach with a four-yard scoring run on fourth-and-goal in the closing seconds. Watson’s run was the game’s only touchdown, as the Cougars forced three turnovers and held a Western Oregon team that had been averaging 43 points over its previous three games to a season-low three.
Junior middle linebacker Sean Barber registered a game-high 11 tackles, and he came down with one of Azusa Pacific’s three interceptions against a Wolves offense that played its first full game of the year without its injured starting QB Cody VonAppen.
“You can’t worry about the future, you can only take care of the present, and defensively we did that today, one play at a time,” Barber said. “If someone made a mistake, we fixed it and got better, and it turned out to be a great defensive game for us. We played with passion and flew to the ball, and it was a lot of fun.”
Senior cornerback Darrell Wilson and senior rover Spencer Danielson had the other picks for the Cougars, who held Western Oregon to just 211 yards of total offense.
“We’re continuing to preach fundamentals, and the coaches didn’t get exhausted of teaching them and the players didn’t get exhausted working on them,” Santa Cruz said. “They knew it would kick in eventually, and that’s when you get to see the fruit of that labor come out like this. Obviously, it would have been nice to have it earlier in the season, but with as young a team as we have, it’s nice to see that they’ve bought in and continue to keep building.”
The Wolves were flagged 10 times for 112 penalty yards, and both teams struggled in the passing game with the soggy conditions. Western Oregon QBs combined to complete 12-of-35 passes, and Azusa Pacific signal-caller Nick Owens was 7-for-26, although he averaged nearly 20 yards per completion.
On the game’s opening drive, Owens found sophomore WR Erik Johnson for a 36-yard gain to the Western Oregon five-yard line, setting up a short Cacciatore field goal. After Western Oregon tied the game at 3-3 on the final play of the first quarter, freshman WR Mike Martens hauled in a 40-yard reception while holding off a defensive back who was whistled for pass interference on the play. That helped set up another chip-shot for Cacciatore, who converted the 18-yard attempt to put the Cougars up 6-3 with 10:07 left in the half.
Cacciatore hit a 33-yarder late in the second quarter, pushing the halftime margin to 9-3, and Western Oregon’s first two drives of the second half stalled in Cougar territory. Another Owens-to-Martens connection, this time for 31 yards and again while Martens was interfered with, had Azusa Pacific sitting just outside the red zone midway through the quarter.
This time, however, Azusa Pacific had to send the field goal unit out for a 47-yard attempt on fourth-and-12, but holder JoJo Bones kept the ball on a fake, scampering 27 yards around the left to the three-yard line for another first-and-goal. Cacciatore finished off the 11-play, 58-yard drive with his fourth field goal of the game, a 25-yarder that pushed the lead to 12-3 with 3:02 to play in the third quarter.
Watson finished with 49 yards on 24 carries, along with the game’s lone touchdown, and Martens hauled in three catches for a game-high 71 receiving yards. Watson carried the ball on all four plays that covered 10 yards in the final 2:40, resulting in the insurance touchdown with just 11 seconds left.
The victory gives Azusa Pacific its first winning streak as an NCAA program, lifting the Cougars to 2-6 in GNAC play, 2-7 overall. Western Oregon gives up its share of the GNAC lead, dropping to 5-3 in conference play and 5-4 overall.
“Coach talks to us about having faith through the tough times and fighting through it, and we’ve grown as a team and become strong,” Barber said. “We’re fighting and clawing, and it’s starting to pay off. We’ve grown and gotten better, and this is where we are right now, so we just have to accept it and keep working. One of our goals right now is to win out the rest of the season, so we have to continue to keep working and get better every week.”
Azusa Pacific is back on the road next week for its shortest conference road trip, a bus ride to Dixie State for a Nov. 3 matchup, which will be followed by a men’s and women’s soccer doubleheader between Azusa Pacific and Dixie State on the same Hansen Stadium turf. The season concludes when the Cougars host Simon Fraser on Nov. 10.