ST. GEORGE, Utah -- Freshman kicker Jamie Cacciatore sat through three timeouts before calmly nailing the game-winning 24-yard field goal with 11 seconds left, making up for two earlier missed kicks by lifting Azusa Pacific to a 23-21 road win over Dixie State.
With the victory, which included a season-high four interceptions for the Cougar defense and a career-high 214-yard rushing performance from sophomore running back Terrell Watson, Azusa Pacific has now won three straight following today’s win which avenged a two-point loss to the Red Storm when the teams first met Sept. 15.
“A win’s a win, and even though I didn’t think the game was going to go like this, whoever wins now is all that matters,” Watson said. “We had to chew on our loss to them for the last several weeks, but now they have to chew on this loss for the next eight months. You can tell that our team has grown, because we know what losing feels like, and we’ve learned that success comes when you play to win instead of playing not to lose. We know we can play with these teams now, and it’s just a matter of believing in it and just doing it.”
Cacciatore had a 23-yard field goal attempt blocked early in the second quarter, a try which would have given his team a 10-7 lead. Instead, Dixie State marched the length of the field for a go-ahead score, and the Cougars never led again until Cacciatore split the uprights to cap a 12-play, 75-yard drive that chewed up all but eight seconds of the final 4:30. Earlier in the quarter, following Watson’s second rushing TD of the game, a 10-yard dash that pulled Azusa Pacific within 21-20, Cacciatore’s point-after attempt was tipped at the line, deflecting wide to the left to keep Dixie State in front by a point.
The defense made a pair of stops, first on a Darrell Wilson deep in Cougar territory, then again with a three-and-out after a failed fake-punt attempt that gave Dixie State the ball back at the Azusa Pacific 41-yard line with just over six minutes remaining in the game.
Watson carried three times for 31 yards on the game-winning 75-yard drive, with all three touches turning into Cougar first downs. He even had a 15-yard run into the end zone that was called back due to an offensive holding penalty, but he ran 16 yards the very next play to bring the Cougars back into the red zone, where Cacciatore eventually converted the game-winning kick despite waiting through three timeouts, one called by his own team to set up the try before Dixie State spent its last two timeouts to try to freeze the true freshman.
“They were just trying to freeze me, but I didn’t really let it get into my head,” said Cacciatore, who made four-of-five field goals in last week’s win over Western Oregon to earn GNAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. “It just gave me another chance to go talk to my teammates and let them know everything was alright. All that was going through my head at the time was that (the kick) just had to go in, no matter what. I had to do this for my teammates.”
After the ensuing squib kickoff was downed at the Dixie State 23-yard line, Red Storm QB Griff Robles picked up 16 yards on a sideline pass to Zach Fox, before his desperation heave in the closing seconds was picked off by sophomore safety Tyler Thornton. It was the second interception of the game for Thornton and the fourth for the Cougar defense, which has registered 11 takeaways over the past four games.
Over its past three meetings with Dixie State, including a split of two Great Northwest Athletic Conference matchups this year after a 48-19 non-conference win in 2011, Azusa Pacific has found success in the rushing game against the Red Storm, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards over those three contests including a 286-yard effort in Saturday’s win. Watson led the way with 214 yards, a career-high that improved on his previous career-best of 144 in this year’s season-opener against UC Davis, and junior QB Nick Owens provided another weapon out of the backfield with 44 yards on eight rushes. He also threw for 145 yards on eight-of-16 passing, connecting with Mike Martens and Wade Struiksma three times each for 59 and 54 yards, respectively.
“We really believe in the importance of running the football in this league, and we believe you’ve got to be able to run the football to win nationally,” Santa Cruz said. “Our coaching staff – (offensive line coach) Jackie Slater, (running backs coach) Ben Buys, and our offensive coordinator Rudy Carlton do a great job with a firm commitment to the run game. Once again, we were going up against a big defensive line, so you’ve got to be able to wear them out somehow. Fortunately, we were able to do that in the fourth quarter, and when we needed that final drive, the offensive line was able to take over.”
A 34-yard hookup between Owens and Struiksma resulted in Azusa Pacific’s first red-zone trip, and freshman JoJo Bones tossed a three-yard TD pass to TE Paul Flores to put the Cougars in front, 7-0, with 5:18 to play in the opening quarter. Although Dixie went three-and-out on its next series, Azusa Pacific’s momentum was halted when Owens had an 11-yard run on third-and-eight nullified by two penalties, one during the run and the other after to send the Cougars all the way back to their own seven-yard line before eventually resulting in a punt.
Dixie State answered by driving 60 yards on 10 plays, with Robles tying the game at 7-7 with his first of two TD passes, a 12-yard connection with Mitch Frei on the second play of the second quarter. The Cougars’ response was a drive that took them all the way to the Dixie State one, but a delay of game sent the third-down play back to the six for an incompletion and the blocked 23-yard field goal attempt.
Robles accounted for 61 yards of the 80-yard Dixie State drive that followed, rushing for 30 and throwing for 31 including his 14-yard strike to Randon Willard that pushed the Red Storm back in front, 14-7, with 4:58 to play in the half.
Again, Watson answered the bell, rumbling for a 44-yard touchdown run just over a minute later to tie the game at 14-14, a score that held up through halftime thanks to Thornton’s first interception, which he picked off at the Cougars’ six-yard line with Dixie State driving in the final two minutes of the half.
“What I see are guys who are focusing throughout the whole game,” Santa Cruz said. “They’ve learned how to play a more physical game. We’ve talked about there being a step up to Division II, and there’s no doubt about it. As you begin to get in these heavyweight fights, it’s a little shocking at first to consistently take those types of blows, but our guys have gotten used to it.”
The Red Storm’s opening second-half drive stalled just outside the red-zone, with Dixie turning the ball over on downs at the Azusa Pacific 24-yard line. Another drive back into Cougar territory ended with senior rover Spencer Danielson’s red-zone interception at the nine-yard line. On the third Dixie State possession of the third quarter, Robles had a 29-yard run, part of a 94-yard rushing day for the dual-threat QB, that helped set up a 10-yard TD run for Brock Johnson that gave the Red Storm another seven-point lead at 21-14.
That led to a drive in which Watson carried four straight times for the final 46 yards of a drive that finished with him punching it into the end zone from 10 yards out. That cut the lead to 21-20, but Cacciatore’s point-after was deflected wide to leave Dixie State with the one-point fourth-quarter edge. Wilson’s interception killed the ensuing drive, but the Cougars were stopped on a fake punt attempt on fourth-and-seven from their own 40-yard line. That led to another three-and-out that set up the game-winning field-goal drive.
“When you do so well in the red zone, the caution is that you can’t assume the red zone,” Santa Cruz said. “Once you get in there, it takes a whole new focus. We had a drive where we didn’t focus, but defensively I’m proud to see that our kids never quit. Dixie’s offense did a great job, but when it came to keeping it out of the end zone when it mattered, the defense came through.”
Thornton finished with a game-high 11 tackles to go with his pair of interceptions, and Danielson added 10 tackles with an interception, a pass breakup and a QB hurry. Junior LB Ethan Danielson added nine stops, which included a hand in two tackles for loss and a sack. The Cougar defense registered nine total tackles for loss, which included two sacks of Robles.
Azusa Pacific improves to 3-7 overall and 3-6 in GNAC play, and the Cougars wrap up the season next week by hosting Simon Fraser University, which knocked off GNAC-leading Humboldt State Saturday.