ALLENDALE, Mich. -- Junior running back Terrell Watson rumbled his way up the Azusa Pacific career rushing charts with a punishing 174-yard effort, but the Cougars couldn’t overcome a slow start that allowed No. 14-ranked Grand Valley State to roll to a 38-17 season-opening win Saturday night at Lubbers Stadium.
Watson’s 174-yard effort pushed him three spots (from 11th to 8th) higher on the Cougars’ career rushing list with the second-best single-game rushing performance of his career, and it put him within 35 yards of becoming the Cougars' eighth rusher to surpass 2,000 yards. His two touchdowns also extended his streak of consecutive games with a rushing score to seven consecutive games.
A pair of costly turnovers in the first quarter led directly to Grand Valley State touchdowns, and the Lakers held a 24-0 halftime lead and added another touchdown on the first possession of the second half to lead by 31 points early in the third quarter. The Cougars, who came up with three takeaways on an interception and two fumbles, appeared to open the third quarter with an impressive goal-line stand. On second-and-goal from the three-yard line, Azusa Pacific forced a fumble and recovered it, but the Cougars had lined up offside, nullifying the turnover and allowing Grand Valley to punch it in from the two-yard line two plays later to go ahead, 31-0.
“When you play a team like Grand Valley State in a situation like this, and you have the aspirations we have as a program, you realize just how much the little things matter,” Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “We had a chance to go up against the best, and now we get to learn from it. There’s a reason why they have all those banners up throughout their campus. We have to go back into the film room and take this game as a great evaluation tool to let us see exactly where we are.”
That’s when the trademark pounding of the Cougars’ physical run game began to wear down the Grand Valley State defense. Watson, who already had 88 yards rushing in the first half, exploded for 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter to cut the Lakers’ lead to 31-14. On a drive that started with nine minutes left in the third quarter, a late hit on Stewart on a third-and-eight play extended the Cougar drive. Senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart connected with Andre Hill for nine yards the next play from scrimmage, and Watson carried three times for the final 39 yards, scoring the first Cougar touchdown of the year from 12 yards out.
“It always starts with the linemen, because without them I couldn’t do anything,” Watson said. “It came down to a point where we knew we could drive the ball, and we knew we had to keep driving it down the field. I think we did a good job with how we responded in the second half. There’s a new game on the calendar next week, and I’m excited to start the conference season and go against Dixie next week.”
Two plays later, senior linebacker Sean Barber jumped on a fumble to give the ball back to the offense at the Grand Valley 35-yard line, and Watson toted the rock three times for 25 yards on the four-play, 35-yard touchdown drive, cutting the lead to 31-14 with 2:53 left in the third quarter. Following a three-and-out by the defense, senior free safety Tyler Thornton returned the punt 24 yards to set up a short drive for field goal that cut the lead to two touchdowns (31-17) with over 12 minutes left in the game.
“This game showed us the team that we know we have, and we have a good group of guys. There’s no quit in them, and they responded well to the good adjustments the coordinators made,” Santa Cruz said. “We have a mentally tough team, and I think the moment got the best of them early on. The turnovers really hurt, and that first quarter especially with the difference in starting field position between their offense and our offense early on wasn’t good at all. I’m happy with how the guys responded, and I know we have a strong-minded team.”
Grand Valley extended its cushion to 38-17 on Michael Ratay’s 73-yard scoring scamper, and the Laker defense came up with a critical goal-line stand with three minutes left in the game to keep the 21-point margin intact. Despite the slow start, the Cougars actually outgained Grand Valley on the ground, 196-185, and picked up 18 first downs to the Lakers’ 16. In fact, outside of Ratay’s long scoring run, the Cougar defense held Grand Valley to 55 yards of offense after halftime. However, Azusa Pacific scored on only three-of-five trips to the red zone in the game, while Grand Valley converted all five of its red-zone opportunities for four TDs and a field goal.
Watson, who had back-to-back 100-yard games in the final two games of the 2012 season, now has his third 100-yard game in a row, although this most recent performance came behind a completely overhauled offensive line. The only returning starter from last year’s line was senior Lance Barker, and even he was transitioning to a new spot at center after starting the past two seasons as a guard.
“Terrell is always a bright spot; he’s a strong leader and a hard runner, and he deserves to carry the ball 30-40 times a game because of who he is.” Santa Cruz said. “This offensive line has a lot of brand new starters, and they found a groove in the second half. That’s a huge plus, to see these guys jell the way they did, and I really thought they kept getting better the more that time went on.”
Making the start at quarterback was Stewart, who carried six times for 19 yards with a long run of 18 yards, and he completed eight-of-21 passes for 81 yards. Senior Nick Owens replaced Stewart for a series in the second quarter and for most of the fourth quarter, completing seven-of-eight throws for 62 yards.
Leading the way defensively was Thornton, who registered six of his team-high nine tackles after halftime, and the defense’s six tackles for loss included three sacks against a Grand Valley State offense that surrendered just eight sacks over the course of the entire season last year. Senior defensive end Matt Moody had 1.5 sacks, including a three-yard sack one play prior to Ratay’s long scoring run on a second-and-13 snap. Barber, who registered seven tackles including one for loss, also had an interception to go with his fumble pickup. Junior rover Cameron Villalobos scooped up the other Grand Valley fumble for another turnover.
“We know we’ve got a good core unit defensively, and (defensive coordinator) Brian Willmer made some really good adjustments,” Santa Cruz said. “We have a good nucleus there, but what you do from week one to week two is really the big picture for any team.”
Barber, who also serves as the starting punter, also saved a potential safety when he tracked down an errant snap in the first quarter by evading a would-be tackler in the end zone before creating just enough space to drill a punt from his own end zone out of bounds at the Azusa Pacific 42. While it was only credited as a 17-yard punt, it was an athletic play that saved a couple of early points and salvaged a little bit of field position for the Cougars.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific starts the season with an 0-1 record, although the Cougars get another fresh start next week when they visit Dixie State to kick off Great Northwest Athletic Conference play.
“A game like this gets us primed up for our league, and our next step is to try to win a league championship,” Santa Cruz said. “Dixie State is always a great opponent, and our focus has to be getting ready for them as we try to improve and learn about ourselves as best we can from this game.”
Grand Valley State, the winningest football program in NCAA Division II history, starts the year with a 1-0 record. The teams will meet again next year, opening the 2014 season in Southern California when Azusa Pacific hosts Grand Valley State next September.