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An On-Fire Finish

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Photo by Sam Stone
Azusa Pacific held Simon Fraser's GNAC-leading offense to seven points through the first three quarters of a 41-28 victory in the season finale.

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November 10, 2012
Joe Reinsch
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GLENDORA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific held the Great Northwest Athletic Conference's most prolific passing offense in check for three quarters, building up a 17-point lead while registering season-bests in total offense and rushing offense in a 41-28 season-ending victory over Simon Fraser.

The Cougars rolled out to a 17-0 lead after scoring on their first three possessions, including a 99-yard march on 11 plays after a Simon Fraser punt was downed at the one-yard line. The Clan, which entered the game boasting the league’s top scoring offense at 35 points per game, was held to just one score through the first three quarters by an Azusa Pacific defense that hadn’t even surrendered 100 passing yards until the final drive of the third quarter.

With the win, Azusa Pacific finishes the season on a four-game winning streak, the longest current winning streak in the GNAC heading into the offseason. The Cougars end the season in a fourth-place tie in the conference standings, posting a 4-6 conference record and going 4-7 overall, and they were the only GNAC program to go 4-1 in the second round of conference play.

“I couldn’t be more proud of this senior class, doing this in their last home game and the last game of the season,” said Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz, who bid goodbye to 22 seniors who were honored in a pregame ceremony. “The thing I’m going to be most grateful to them for is when you’re sitting at 0-7, it takes leadership not just from the coaching staff but particularly within the ranks of the seniors. They’re a veteran group, and they never stopped believing. They were able to keep the team spirited and hard-working in practice, and we knew at some point it was going to get traction.”

Sophomore RB Terrell Watson rushed for a game-high 165 yards with three total TDs, two rushing and one receiving, and he became the ninth Azusa Pacific player to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. He finished the year with 1,094 yards, the highest single-season total for a Cougar running back since Jack Williams ran for 1,647 yards in his 1998 NAIA Player of the Year campaign. Junior QB Nick Owens completed 15-of-21 passes for 171 yards and two TDs, and he rushed 10 times for 126 yards on the ground. The Cougars’ 359 rushing yards and 530 yards of total offense were both season-bests, and Azusa Pacific went five-for-five in red-zone scoring to improve its GNAC-leading red-zone scoring percentage to 91 percent. On the year, the Cougars scored on 30 of its 33 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

“Coach (Rudy) Carlton said all year long that as an offense we needed to play a complete game,” Owens said. “We’ve played two good quarters, sometimes three, but consecutively I think this was our best offensive production all season long, and I couldn’t be happier to send the guys out with that. Simon Fraser’s got a great offense, and we knew they could put up a lot of points quickly, so we had to make sure to keep the pedal down as an offense for all four quarters.”

After allowing 66 points and 654 yards of total offense to Simon Fraser when the teams first met Oct. 6 in British Columbia, the Cougar defense rose to the challenge of shutting down an offense centered around WR Lemar Durant, a strong candidate for conference player of the year honors who entered the game ranked in the top six nationally in catches, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. Up until the final drive of the third quarter, Durant had hauled in just one catch for seven yards, although he ended up with nine catches for 91 yards.

“We knew we had to slow Durant down, but we really just wanted to make sure that everyone did their job,” said senior rover Spencer Danielson, who wrapped up his collegiate career in the heart of the Cougar defense with a five-tackle performance. “Starting out losing seven games and winning the last four, you almost don’t remember the seven losses anymore. Right now, we’re the back-half champions, and winning our last four leaves this team with a legacy. As a senior, it was just awesome to see the program take the steps that it did.”

Sophomore safety Tyler Thornton registered a team-high nine tackles and intercepted Simon Fraser QB Trey Wheeler for the only turnover of the game. He also had a 75-yard kickoff return after the Clan had trimmed the Cougar lead to 27-21 with 5:01 remaining, bringing the ball all the way back to the Simon Fraser 10-yard line to set up another Azusa Pacific score that pushed the lead back to 35-21.

Junior CB Silas Goma added eight tackles with a pass breakup on a deep ball intended for Durant in the end zone, and senior CB Darrell Wilson registered two breakups along with four tackles. Freshman defensive end Matthew Hackett registered another productive game, registering six tackles which included a sack and another tackle for loss, and senior LB Troy Mouton had three tackles, two of which resulted in negative yardage for the Clan offense.

After the defense forced a three-and-out on Simon Fraser’s opening possession, the Cougar offense wasted little time eating up big chunks of yardage. Owens completed a 25-yard pass to sophomore WR Ed Dillihunt immediately after an 18-yard scamper for sophomore RB Ronald Douglas, the first two of a dozen plays from scrimmage that gained 15-plus yards for the Cougar offense. That set up a 23-yard field goal for freshman Jamie Cacciatore for an early 3-0 lead. Thornton intercepted Wheeler on the third play of the ensuing drive to set up a four-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 42-yard TD pass from Owens to Dillihunt, extending the early lead to 10-0 with 8:08 left in the first quarter.

“Against an offense like this, you’ve got to come out of the gates fast, because they’ve been throwing up points like crazy, and they have great weapons at running back, receiver positions, and quarterback,” Santa Cruz said.

Simon Fraser RB Bo Palmer was his team’s most effective offensive weapon, finishing with 200 all-purpose yards, and his 27-yard run to open the next drive put the Clan into Cougar territory for the first time in the game. However, the drive stalled near midfield, and Nikolai Karpun’s punt was downed at the one-yard line.

After running it out of the shadow of its own end zone with a nine-yard Watson run followed by a 16-yard scamper for Owens, Azusa Pacific stuck with the ground game to march the length of the field for an 11-play, 99-yard scoring drive. There were two first-down incompletions, but all the yardage in the drive came from nine rushing plays which actually covered 104 yards by making up the length of the field plus five penalty yards. Watson, who capped the drive with the final six-yard TD rush, carried six times for 59 yards on the drive, and Owens kept it himself twice for 31 yards. Senior RB David Trifeletti had the other 14 yards on a second-and-15 carry that put the Cougars just outside the red-zone at the Simon Fraser 24-yard line.

“Earlier in the day, the seniors got to share their experience at Azusa Pacific, and that really gave us something to play for,” Owens said. “I’m sure going to miss guys like Robby Palacios, Graham Paterson, David Trifeletti, and Tim Taylor. I couldn’t be happier for all the seniors going out, and especially for some of the guys on the offensive line that I won’t be able to play with next season who I’m really going to miss.”

Palmer finally got Simon Fraser on the scoreboard midway through the second quarter, capping a seven-play, 59-yard scoring drive with a three-yard TD run that cut the lead to 17-7 with 8:28 to play in the opening half. When the Clan got the ball back again, they kept the ball moving for a 14-play, 58-yard drive, but after Durant’s first catch of the game, a seven-yard reception that put Simon Fraser into the red zone, the Azusa Pacific defense held its ground for three straight incompletions to stall the drive and preserve its 10-point lead heading into halftime.

“They had playmakers that you just have to hope you can contain as long as possible, and with Durant, we needed to have constant eyeballs on where he was and what we were doing coverage-wise,” Santa Cruz said. “We had to keep their offense contained, and then it got to the point where their offense had to play catch-up, and we were able to just stay a few drives ahead of them.”

Azusa Pacific’s true freshman “wildcat” QB JoJo Bones scored on a one-yard rush that pushed the lead to 24-7 with 4:03 remaining in the third quarter. Durant finally got his next two catches for short gains when the Clan got the ball back and answered with a 14-play, 63-yard scoring drive that extended into the fourth quarter before Palmer punched in a six-yard run to cut the lead to 24-14 with 13:47 remaining in the game.

Cacciatore drilled a 31-yard field goal with 8:05 left, extending the margin to 27-14 after the offense moved 51 yards on 12 plays to chew up another 5:37 off the game clock, and it took Simon Fraser another 12 plays and just over three minutes to answer with a 75-yard scoring drive that got the Clan to within one score at 27-21 with 5:01 left.

Thornton returned the ensuing kickoff 75 yards to set up Owens’ 13-yard TD pass to Watson, and Bones ran in the conversion attempt for two points to extend the lead to 35-21. Wheeler connected with Durant three times in five plays, including a one-yard fade into the corner of the end zone that cut the lead to 35-28 with 3:15 left. However, the Cougars recovered the on-side kick and scored three plays later when Watson rumbled 33 yards to put the game out of reach with 2:06 to play.

“This winning streak stabilizes our program on this new level, and the team that we do have back understands we can go toe-for-toe in this league,” Santa Cruz said. “They also now understand that the weight room and the details have got to be taken care of. Simon Fraser was the top offense in our league, and we knew they wouldn’t quit, and that’s exactly the type of teams you’ve got to understand we’re playing every week. We’re learning that, and our focus now is Grand Valley State.”

Azusa Pacific opens the 2013 season with a Saturday, Sept. 7 visit to Allendale, Mich., to take on four-time NCAA Division II national champion Grand Valley State. The 10-game GNAC schedule immediately follows with the Cougars hosting Humboldt State on Sept. 14 as the 2013 schedule follows the same order of opponents as the 2012 slate, with sites reversed.