MONMOUTH, Ore. -- Azusa Pacific built a 15-point fourth-quarter lead before escaping with a two-point Great Northwest Athletic Conference road win over Western Oregon Saturday, surviving a pair of Wolves touchdowns in the final three minutes to collect the 34-32 win.
Senior LB Sean Barber improved his career-high in tackles with 16 stops, his third consecutive game either setting or tying his career-best, and the Barber-led Cougar defense came up with three turnovers. Up until the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter, Western Oregon had been held to less than 200 yards of total offense.
“We respected Western Oregon and knew they had a good offense. Anything we could do to help out our offense and prevent them from having the ball is always a good thing, so getting the ball back however we can is what we always want to do,” Barber said. “In the end, a win’s a win and we just have to learn from the mistakes we made and keep getting better.”
However, after Jamie Cacciatore knocked in his fourth field goal of the game with 7:22 remaining to put the Cougars in front, 34-19, the Wolves took to the air for a 13-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, passing on every down of the drive including Ryan Bergman’s six-yard touchdown toss to Antoinne Wafer with 3:21 remaining to cut the lead to 34-26.
After Tyrell Williams recovered the onside kick for Western Oregon, Bergman marched the Wolves 54 yards for another score, connecting with Williams for a 23-yard touchdown pass that cut the lead to 34-32 with 60 seconds left on the clock. Under pressure from the Cougar defensive line, Bergman’s two-point conversion pass fell incomplete in the back corner of the end zone, and Barber recovered the ensuing onside kick to allow Azusa Pacific to kneel three times and run out the clock for the win.
“We had all the confidence that we could hold on to the lead, but we also know the reality of GNAC football, which in my opinion is the SEC of Division II football,” Cougar head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We know these games always go down to the wire, so we expected Western Oregon to fight until the end. We were prepared for it, but we also recognize that there are some things we can still clean up to make it a little bit easier on ourselves.”
Senior QB Dasmen Stewart was starting under center for the first time since the opening week, and he converted an efficient 16-of-23 passing for 191 yards while easing the rushing load off workhorse junior TB Terrell Watson by scrambling 11 times for 90 yards to complement Watson's 28 rushes for 102 yards. Stewart rushed for two scores, while Watson rushed for another, and the Cougars controlled the ball for over 40 minutes of the game.
“Field position and possession of the football mean a lot in games like this,” Santa Cruz said. “The lesson to teach from this game as we keep growing is that every little thing matters, and you don’t want to leave anything to chance.”
Stewart guided a nine-play, 43-yard scoring drive on the game’s opening possession, completing a pair of passes for 13 yards while dashing another 25 yards to put the Cougars in field goal range. Cacciatore knocked in a 40-yard attempt, putting Azusa Pacific in front, 3-0. The ensuing kickoff was brought back 90 yards for a Western Oregon touchdown, giving the Wolves their only lead of the game at 6-3 after the PAT was pushed wide right.
Stewart had another run of 13 yards during a nine-play, 61-yard drive for another Cacciatore field goal, evening the game at 6-6, and two plays later the Cougars were right back in the red zone after recovering a fumble of a hurried snap to Bergman. Watson broke through the line for a nine-yard touchdown, giving Azusa Pacific a 13-6 lead with 4:54 left in the first quarter, and the Cougars led the rest of the way.
In the second quarter, Cacciatore nailed his third field goal, which preceded a touchdown drive capped by Stewart’s third-and-goal sneak into the end zone from the one-yard line. That pushed the lead to 22-12 heading into halftime, and the Cougars answered a third-quarter Western Oregon touchdown with 12 straight points on another Stewart 1-yard TD run, a blocked punt for a safety, and Cacciatore’s fourth field goal of the game, a 26-yarder with 7:33 to play that pushed the lead to 34-19.
With the win, Azusa Pacific keeps a share of the conference lead, improving to 3-1 in conference play and 3-2 overall. The Cougars will at least share the top spot in the GNAC standings following tonight's conference games of Simon Fraser at Dixie State and Central Washington at Humboldt State.
“We play it week by week and every week our focus is on doing whatever we can to get a win,” Barber said. “Every week is a new season, so that’s where our focus is. We can’t look ahead, because we have a lot to work on.”
The Cougars host Simon Fraser next week in the annual Homecoming game at Citrus Stadium at 6:30 p.m.