GLENDORA, Calif. -- If Azusa Pacific’s four-game winning streak to end the 2012 season slipped under the radar, Saturday’s 28-2 victory over preseason Great Northwest Athletic Conference favorite Humboldt State was a major statement for the Cougars as a second-year GNAC program which has now won six consecutive conference games dating back to last season.
“These guys were hungry to make a statement and win, and to be the absolute best they can be. Our guys have that confidence and are playing for each other,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We’re getting more accustomed to who we’re competing with and to the level of physicality we have to play with. The fact that our guys are playing physical for four straight quarters is a significant difference from last year.”
Junior tailback Terrell Watson rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns to lead Azusa Pacific’s potent ground attack, but a brilliant defensive performance highlighted by Tyler Thornton’s 99-yard interception return stole the spotlight. The Cougars contained Humboldt State’s offense by limiting Nick Ricciardulli, the reigning conference offensive player of the year, to 74 yards on 25 carries in his first game back from an injury he suffered in the season opener.
“We had a good scheme, and I just wanted to do my part by keeping things in front of me,” Thornton said. “When the opportunity came for me to make a play, I felt like I did that. Once we shut them out in the first quarter, the confidence kept building, and we just kept getting stronger.”
Both defenses were impenetrable in a scoreless first half, each denying the other’s best scoring threat of the opening half. Humboldt State tipped Jamie Cacciatore’s 40-yard first-quarter field goal attempt, and early in the second quarter Riccardiulli was stopped at the one-yard line by Sean Barber and Matthew Hackett on fourth-and-goal from the two for an impressive goal-line stand.
“Humboldt State has a great running game led by a guy who’s the offensive player of the league who is back healthy now,” Santa Cruz said. “What our defense did shows a lot of our speed on that side of the ball, and the effort and conviction with which our guys played. In our league, we’ll have to see these guys again in a few weeks, so I know they’re going to make adjustments while we make some adjustments of our own.”
Watson broke the scoreless tie with a 13-yard scoring run with 8:47 left in the third quarter, capping a six-play, 48-yard drive in which he carried five consecutive times for 41 yards. On the very next Cougar drive, he opened with a 15-yard run that preceded a 54-yard scoring jaunt from speedy tailback Ronald Douglas that made it 14-0 with 5:16 left in the third quarter. Watson added a one-yard touchdown on third-and-goal of the opening drive of the fourth quarter, giving him at least two rushing touchdowns in five consecutive games.
“I ended up with a good game because the linemen were blocking so well, and we knew that if we kept pounding the ball, eventually things would open up for us,” Watson said. “The touchdowns all go to my linemen, because they’re the ones who allow me to get into the end zone. They know what they have to do, and they just get after it.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Humboldt State receiver Chase Krivashei fumbled near the goal line as he attempted to stretch for a score with less than six minutes to play, the second stop of the game at the one for the Cougar defense. Following the change of possession, Humboldt State dragged Watson down in the end zone, resulting in a safety that snapped the shutout with less than six minutes to play in the game.
For the game, the Cougars were perfect in the red-zone, scoring on both of its opportunities inside the Humboldt State 20-yard line while the Lumberjacks were 0-for-3 in red-zone trips, including Thornton’s weaving 99-yard interception return that put an exclamation point on the victory with 2:32 left.
Watson’s 155-yard rushing performance moved him up to sixth on Azusa Pacific’s career rushing list with 2,285 career yards. It was his fifth straight game of 150-plus rushing yards and his ninth in a row with 100-plus, and he extended his streak of games with a rushing touchdown to nine (including his last five in a row with two rushing scores). Douglas’ score was his first of the year, and as a team the Cougars have outrushed their opponent for seven consecutive games, winning six of seven during that stretch.
“I’m really proud of (starting QB) Justin McPherson, because this was his first start in such a long time, and he was able to help us beat Humboldt State for the first time in a while,” Santa Cruz said. “The stable of running backs we have makes it difficult for teams to just focus on Terrell. Ronald has 10.8 speed (100-meters) and is able to hit the edge and go, and those are the things in the game plan where Coach Carlton and his staff have figured out how to use all those weapons together very well.”
Humboldt State quarterback Kyle Morris finished 20-for-41 passing for 207 yards, and he carried 14 times for 41 yards. After halftime, however, his net rushing was zero yards, and he completed just 14-of-32 passes in the second half. His top two targets were Krivashei and Kelechi Nwadibia, who each finished with identical totals of six catches for 82 yards.
Senior linebacker Sean Barber notched a career-high 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and he recovered two fumbles for a defense that came up with three takeaways (all in the second half) and also forced turnovers on downs three other times. Thornton’s interception was his first of the season after the junior free safety picked off four passes last year, and the 99-yard return was the second-longest in Cougar history, just one yard shy of the 100-yard interception return record set in 1965 by Doug Meyers.
Junior defensive end Kalvin Davis notched 1.5 sacks in a seven-tackle performance, and sophomore linebacker James Hackett also registered 1.5 tackles for loss as Azusa Pacific finished with three sacks and four other tackles for loss.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 2-1 overall and shares the GNAC lead at 2-0 in league play with another surprising frontrunner in Simon Fraser, a program which was picked fifth out of six teams in the preseason conference coaches poll. Humboldt State remains winless through three games, with both GNAC defeats coming against Simon Fraser and Azusa Pacific.
The Cougars host defending GNAC champion Central Washington next week, taking on the Wildcats in another 6:30 p.m. kickoff at Citrus Stadium.