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Counting Down: No. 11

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The 1985 football team went 7-1-1 and finished ninth in the final NAIA coaches poll.

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Published
June 13, 2013
By
Joe Reinsch

Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 21.

MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis

The countdown continues with the No. 11 team:

1985 Azusa Pacific Football

Record: 7-1-1
Final NAIA ranking: 9th

1985 Azusa Pacific Football Season Statistics
1985 Azusa Pacific Football Roster
1985 NAIA Division II Football Rankings (weekly)
1985 NAIA Division II Football Statistics Leaders (final)

Azusa Pacific made eight playoff appearances in a 14-year stretch from 1998-2011, but those who saw and experienced the 1985 football team firsthand believe it to be among the program’s best. The fact that the Cougars were inexplicably left out of the eight-team NAIA playoffs still ranks as one of the greatest injustices in the history of Cougar Athletics, and it certainly dimmed the legacy of what some people still consider to be the best team Azusa Pacific has ever put on the football field.

Although it’s easy to associate the team’s 7-1-1 campaign on the broad shoulders of the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Nigerian running back Christian Okoye, who would go on to become a two-time Pro Bowl running back during a six-year NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs. However, the Cougars were equally physical on both sides of the ball, pounding away at their opponents for 60 minutes with a hard-nosed, blue-collar style of play.

The result of the Cougars’ physical brand of football was a team that was never outscored after halftime. In fact, Azusa Pacific didn’t allow a single second-half point until the fifth game of the season, when Redlands ruined a shutout bid in the final minute of the fourth quarter in a 39-7 blowout. Over the course of the season, the Cougars allowed 13 third-quarter points and 20 in the fourth quarter to register a total second-half scoring margin of 130-33. They were as explosive as they were deliberate in wearing down opposing defenses. In the first five games, Azusa Pacific scored on its first play from scrimmage three times while Okoye added a 50-yard score on the second offensive play in a 37-12 rout of La Verne.

Okoye was without question the centerpiece of that identity, bruising his way within the Cougars’ run-first wing-T offense to the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,355 yards and 10 TDs in just nine games. However, the attention paid to Okoye for his unique combination of power and speed overshadowed the decision-making and pinpoint accuracy displayed by senior quarterback David Russell, who completed 114-of-191 passes to set the school’s single-season completion percentage record of .597. Russell threw for 12 touchdowns against just six interceptions, and he ran for five more touchdowns while guiding the offense to team records for scoring (310 points), total rushing (2,475 yards) and total offense (4,146 yards).

“We did not drop back and throw,” said Jim Milhon, Azusa Pacific’s all-time winningest football head coach with a record of 81-69-4 during his 17 years (1978-94). “Every team we were going to face would spend time all week figuring out how to stop the big guy (Okoye), so we would throw off of that. Russell doesn’t get the credit on that team that he should, and I think it’s because of Okoye, but Russell was a big part of that team’s success.”

With an offense that defined its identity by its success running the football, the Cougar defense likewise built its reputation on keeping its opponents from doing the same. Opponents averaged less than 50 yards per game rushing with Azusa Pacific holding foes to just 1.6 yards per rush attempt. More than half of Azusa Pacific’s first downs came via the run; just 25 percent of opponents’ first downs were on the ground. The Cougars were over 50 percent on third-down conversions (66-for-131), and they held opponents to a 31 percent (40-for-128) third-down conversion rate.

“We were always a run-first team,” said Azusa Pacific Director of Athletics Gary Pine, who was in his second year as the university’s sports information director in 1985. “Milhon used to tell me that only three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad, so the odds are against you. He said that at his house, they don’t ask each other to pass the butter, they ask you to run the butter. He was a run-oriented guy, and he had a series of physical backs through the 1980s, and that was our style of play.”

Azusa Pacific won its first seven games of the 1985 season, ascending to No. 3 in the NAIA rankings with two weeks left in the regular season. After rallying from a late-third quarter deficit of 21 points to tie San Francisco State and keep its undefeated season alive, the Cougars slipped to fifth heading into the regular-season finale against its arch-rival, Cal Lutheran. It took another second-half rally, but Azusa Pacific erased a 14-point halftime deficit with 17 consecutive points to take a 27-24 lead and seemingly had its first-ever NAIA playoff berth wrapped up. However, Cal Lutheran spoiled the undefeated season by scoring with 3:57 left in the game to upset the Cougars, 30-27. The next day, the loss stung even more, as Azusa Pacific fell four more spots to ninth in the final NAIA coaches poll. The Cougars were left out of the playoff field, and the team that slid past them into the eighth and final playoff spot, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, would go on to win the 1985 NAIA championship.

Although never officially confirmed, rumors circulated that one of the playoff-bound coaches had left Azusa Pacific completely off his final ballot, helping push four other one-loss teams past a Cougar team that just a week earlier had owned the NAIA’s longest unbeaten streak (15 games) and was one of just five remaining unbeaten teams in the NAIA. The final-poll shuffle resulted in a playoff snub for an Azusa Pacific, which ranked third nationally in total offense and was the only NAIA team to rank among the nation’s top-five in both rushing offense and rushing defense.

“It was a real heartbreak ending to the season,” Pine said. “In my time at Azusa Pacific, it was probably the biggest gut-punching loss ever. I don’t even really like to look at the pictures from that year, because it’s sad. That team deserved more than what they got. They’re a little bit of a forgotten team, but it’s a memorable time for me because every year the program was getting better. With the way the 1984 season had finished, plus the excitement of Christian who would put you on the edge of your seat every time he touched the ball, it was a very fun and special team that got the short end of the stick.”

Okoye and senior defensive tackle Eric Lemasters earned NAIA All-American first team recognition, and Russell was an All-American honorable mention at quarterback. Okoye finished fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 150.6 yards per game, and Lemasters registered a school-record 15 quarterback sacks. Russell threw for 1,511 yards (167.9 per game),

The offense also featured senior slotback Jon Milhon, who was second to Okoye in touchdown scoring with nine (six rushing, three receiving), and senior running back Greg Johnson, who was the second-leading rusher behind Okoye with 355 total yards on 57 carries for an average of 6.2 yards per carry. The backfield trio of Okoye, Milhon, and Johnson all averaged over five yards per carry, and Johnson was also the Cougars’ second-leading receiver behind senior Ted Campbell, who had 27 catches for 557 yards. Milhon had 14 catches for 212 yards, while junior tight end Kimball Chase notched 21 catches for 274 yards and tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with four.

Defensively, Azusa Pacific was led by the Lemasters-led pass rush, with junior nose guard Rod Price adding nine sacks to go with junior defensive tackle Randy Scott’s seven-sack season.

“We had a defensive line that was extremely tough and had a little bit of nastiness to it,” Pine said. “Lemasters and Price were great guys who I really liked, but they had a tenacity about them. They just came after people and hit the living snot out of them.”

Senior linebacker Craig Wall led the team in tackles with 71, finishing ahead of Lemasters (57 tackles) and Price (56 tackles). Senior cornerback Terry Patterson and junior defensive back Pless Taylor each registered a team-high three interceptions to lead a secondary that included a junior cornerback in Kevin Reid, who returned 18 punts for 82 yards and six kickoffs for 99 yards. Reid, another two-sport athlete who was a member of two NAIA-champion track and field teams (1986 and 1988), is Azusa Pacific’s longest-tenured head coach, serving as men’s track and field head coach for 18 years while guiding the program to 14 of its 25 men’s track and field national championships.

The 1985 season also served as Azusa Pacific’s final season playing home games at Hillside Field, which was located about two miles north of Cougar Stadium, which served as the Cougars’ primary home facility from 1986-2009. Azusa Pacific now plays its home games on the artificial turf at Citrus Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 10,000 and is located on the Citrus College campus next door to Azusa Pacific’s main campus. The Cougars were 22-3-1 over their final six seasons at Hillside Field, winning all three games of their 3-0 start to the 1985 campaign at Hillside.

“I remember back in 1980 that our guys began to find out they could win,” said Milhon, who posted seven straight winning seasons from 1980-86 after inheriting a program in 1978 that had posted just three winning records in its first 13 seasons of existence. “They weren’t anywhere near as good as some of the teams that followed, but they set the standard.”

After posting a season-opening 37-14 win over Whittier with a final score that matched the halftime score, Azusa Pacific defeated Claremont-Mudd, 44-14. That set up a clash with Occidental, which also opened the year with consecutive wins to bring a 2-0 record to Hillside for a clash with Okoye and the Cougars. Occidental, which featured an NFL-caliber running back of its own in 1986 Oakland Raiders fourth-round pick Vance Mueller, suffered its only regular-season defeat to Azusa Pacific before advancing to the NCAA Division III quarterfinals.

“A few years earlier, when the NFL had gone on strike in 1982, the TV networks ended up covering NCAA Division III games, so Occidental had some local notoriety from being on television,” Pine said.

The previous five meetings between Azusa Pacific and Occidental had been split down the middle with two wins and a tie, and all five contests had been decided by six points or less. Mueller scored two second-quarter touchdowns to carry Occidental to a 14-10 halftime lead, but he was held to just 16 yards rushing the rest of the game. The Cougars pitched their third consecutive second-half shutout while scoring 21 after halftime on a pair of Russell touchdown passes along with a five-yard scoring run from Okoye, who handily won the battle between future NFL running backs as he rushed for 147 yards on 23 carries compared to Mueller’s 51 yards on 21 attempts.

“I had done an internship with the Angels in 1985, and I found an NBC Sports television banner in the office while working there," Pine said. "We had this crow’s nest at the Hillside Field, so early that morning I had gone up and hung this banner. Everyone saw it and thought NBC was at the game, not necessarily to cover it live but to get some footage and do a story on the game, so it had this added buzz. There was a fan at the game who happened to wear an NBC Sports hat, and even though he had no affiliation with the network, people saw the banner and his hat and thought he was there from NBC.”

After winning four in a row on the road to improve to 7-0, Azusa Pacific returned home for its final two games. San Francisco State brought one of NCAA Division II’s most explosive offenses to Hillside, a unit guided by a coaching staff which included offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter (current Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator) and offensive line coach Andy Reid (current Kansas City Chiefs head coach after 14 years as Philadelphia Eagles head coach). That offense went for 558 yards that day, racing to a 38-17 lead late in the third quarter before Azusa Pacific scored 21 unanswered in the final 16 minutes of play. Russell hit Scott Greene for an eight-yard score with less than a minute left in the third quarter, and his five-yard strike to Chase with 10:25 to play in the fourth quarter pulled he Cougars within seven, 38-31. With just 21 seconds remaining, he kept it for a one-yard keeper that tied the game at 38-38, keeping the unbeaten season alive. Russell was 17-for-20 passing in the second half, and he finished with 272 yards through the air to lead the offense to 506 total yards.

“That was the greatest football comeback I’ve ever seen here,” Pine said. “The field was in a pretty open area, but it was loud up there – as loud as any game I can remember up on the hillside. Our defense began to stop them, and you could tell we really did physically begin to wear them out even though they had been beating us early on. We scored late in the game, and we chose to go for the tie to keep the undefeated season alive and keep our ranking.”

A week later, Cal Lutheran became the only team all season to score first against Azusa Pacific, jumping out to a 10-0 lead and extending it to 24-10 at the half.

“Cal Lutheran’s record (4-5) didn’t indicate how good they were,” Pine said. “They were now playing Portland State, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and Cal State Northridge, making a transition from NAIA Division II into an NCAA Division II schedule.”

The Cougars blocked a punt out of the end zone early in the third quarter to trim the deficit to 24-12, and Russell connected with Chase from six yards out later in the third quarter to cut the margin to 24-19. Russell found Chase again in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, this time for an 11-yard touchdown pass, and senior tight end Charlie Hetzer caught a two-point conversion pass from sophomore quarterback David Titchenal to put Azusa Pacific in front, 27-24. Cal Lutheran went back in front with less than four minutes to play, taking a 30-27 lead, and the Cougars were unable drive into field goal range for the potential game-tying kick.

Less than 24 hours later, its fate was sealed when the final national rankings had dropped Azusa Pacific into ninth, just one spot and 17 voting points out of the elusive final playoff spot which went to Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“We were on pins and needles that night, and the next morning we got the call that we had fallen from fifth to ninth,” Pine recalled. “I’ll never forget that Sunday; it just felt like we’d been robbed. There’s all sorts of conspiracy theories about how we fell that much, but Wisconsin-La Crosse got the eighth spot and went on to win the NAIA Division II championship. It’s a gut-wrencher because I really think that was a good team that could have gone a long way in the playoffs. It would have been fun to see Christian go up against some of those other teams and see if we could make a run.”

In fact, the Cougars might very well have gone to Helena, Montana, to face No. 7-ranked Carroll College, which was making its second all-time playoff appearance when it hosted No. 8 Wisconsin-La Crosse in a first-round matchup. Azusa Pacific and Carroll eventually met in 2004 for the first of three playoff matchups between the programs, which included two more visits by the Cougars to Helena in 2010 and 2011.

Following the near-miss of the 1985 playoffs, it would be another 13 years before Azusa Pacific’s 1998 team clinched the program’s first berth in the NAIA playoffs, which had consolidated to a single division in 1997 while expanding the playoffs to a 16-team field. As many Cougar football fans know, that 1998 team went on to win the NAIA championship in thrilling fashion, winning all four playoff games by seven points or less.

“I’ve always thought that you have to lose a little in order to appreciate winning, and that 1985 moment was a real punch in the gut,” Pine said. “When we made the playoffs in 1998, having been through the drought so long and having been so close that one time, to finally get there was pure satisfaction. I truly believe that 1985 should have been there, as well, and it makes you wonder if 1998 could win it, what could 1985 have done?”

“The 1998 team got hot, and maybe because they were so hot, they could have beaten the 1985 team,” Pine speculated. “But if you took the teams mid-season, I still think 1985 was better. I think our 2004 team had a better overall defense, and I think the 2004 front line matched up very well with the 1985 front line. Still, Dave Russell is probably one of the three or four best quarterbacks we’ve had here. I would like to think the 1985 team would have done some damage in the playoffs.”

Azusa Pacific made seven more playoff appearances in the next 13 seasons before joining the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and initiating Division II regular-season competition in 2012.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS

In the summer of 1985, junior defensive tackle Randy Scott encountered a serious accident on the 91 freeway as he returned to campus from a double-date with Azusa Pacific track student-athlete Phil Mann. Scott, who exited the freeway and returned to the accident scene as a California Highway Patrol Unit arrived, helped CHP officers and paramedics stabilize all three accident victims as his date watched from the car. Scott, who was a 22-year old sports medicine major, was asked by a paramedic where he practiced medicine, as his life-saving first aid helped ensure the survival of all three of the accident victims.

The 1985 season also featured the return of two-sport star wide receiver Ted Campbell, who had also been a member of Azusa Pacific’s 1983 NAIA track and field championship team as an All-American in both the 4x400 meter relay and decathlon. Just before the start of the 1983 football season, Campbell was diagnosed with cancer. His surgery to remove lymph nodes meant he would have to miss the entire 1983 football season, and as the 1984 season approached a blood test showed that the cancer had returned. Campbell was permitted to play in the first two games in 1984 before entering the hospital for chemotherapy treatments, catching seven passes for 110 yards in the two games he appeared. At one point during a hospital stay, Campbell’s heart stopped beating for a few seconds before a nurse was able to revive him. When chemotherapy treatments stopped in December of 1984, there were no more signs of the disease, allowing Campbell to begin the arduous recovery and training for the 1985 football season.

He scored his first touchdown of the season on the opening play of the second game, a 66-yard scoring strike from Russell, who faked a handoff to Okoye before hooking up with Campbell to start a 44-14 rout of Claremont-Mudd.

“For a long time, Ted and Jon (Milhon) would come in together and tell me we should throw a pass on the first play of the game, and my response was always the same: you’ve got to be kidding me,” Milhon said. “Now we would have the offense come over and call the first play on the sideline, so this time I stuck my head in the huddle and called ‘trap it three pass.’ Ted and Jon just looked at each other and couldn’t believe the play I called.”

Campbell also caught a 40-yard touchdown on the opening play of the second quarter, finishing the game with 142 yards receiving. His football career concluded with a spectacular senior season, as Campbell led the Cougars in receiving with team-highs in receptions (27), receiving yards (557), receiving average (20.6 yards per catch), and receiving TDs (4).

1985 RESULTS

Sept. 14, 1985: Azusa Pacific 37, Whittier 14
Sept. 21, 1985: Azusa Pacific 44, Claremont-Mudd 14
Sept. 28, 1985: Azusa Pacific 31, Occidental 14
Oct. 5, 1985: Azusa Pacific 37, La Verne 12
Oct. 12, 1985: Azusa Pacific 39, Redlands 7
Oct. 26, 1985: Azusa Pacific 30, UC Santa Barbara 10
Nov. 2, 1985: Azusa Pacific 27, San Diego 14
Nov. 9, 1985: Azusa Pacific 38, San Francisco State 38
Nov. 16, 1985: Cal Lutheran 30, Azusa Pacific 27