ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- The battle for sole leadership of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference took some unexpected twists and turns, but Azusa Pacific survived an unconventional opening half with the lead before holding on late for a 24-17 road win over Central Washington Saturday afternoon.
With the victory, the Cougars improve to 6-2 overall and 6-1 in GNAC play, while Central Washington falls a game behind in the standings at 5-3 overall, 5-2 GNAC, with three conference games remaining on the schedule. Azusa Pacific is home for matchups with Western Oregon (Nov. 2) and Dixie State (Nov. 9) before closing out the regular season with a visit to Simon Fraser (B.C.).
“I’m very excited for everyone on this team, because they battled through a half of football that I’ve never seen anything like before,” Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We’ll enjoy this win, because it’s our program’s first at Central Washington, but we’ll keep our focus on our next opponent, Western Oregon.”
The Cougars were outgained by 124 yards, held to nine first downs, and trailed time of possession and total plays by an almost two-to-one margin. However, they also created four turnovers and scored 14 points on defense and special teams, allowing Central Washington to lead the game for just 12 seconds, which was the length of time it took freshman Tarik Myles to return the ensuing kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Azusa Pacific took that 14-10 lead into halftime, despite the Cougar offense running just three total plays from scrimmage until the final minute of the half. An interception return for touchdown, an onside kick, and Myles’ kick return touchdown allowed Central Washington to keep the ball for four consecutive possessions leading up to a punt that finally gave the ball back to the Cougars with just 57 seconds left in the half.
“We joked with offensive coordinator Rudy Carlton about what a great game he called in that first half,” Santa Cruz said. “Our defense certainly rose to the occasion when we needed them the most in that first half, and I couldn’t be prouder of such a complete team effort to battle for this win.”
After cashing in the first of three second-half fumbles for a 23-yard field goal that extended the lead to 17-10 early in the third quarter, Azusa Pacific closed out the third by stalling a nine-play Central Washington drive with one of its four sacks of Wildcat quarterback Jake Nelson. The ensuing punt to open the fourth quarter set up the perfect opportunity for the Cougars to grind out an 11-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that chewed up the first five minutes of the fourth quarter and pushed the lead to 24-10.
Senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart completed two-of-three passes for 48 yards on the scoring drive, and he rushed three other times for 19 extra yards. Junior tailback Terrell Watson took care of the rest, toting the ball five times for 23 yards, including an eight-yard scoring run that gave Azusa Pacific a two-TD lead with 9:57 left in the game.
Junior free safety Tyler Thornton registered a career-high 19 tackles, just three stops away from the program’s single-game record, and junior linebacker Steven Fanua came off the bench to impact the game with 15 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and two pass breakups. The duo led a defense that registered eight tackles for loss (including four sacks) and limited Central Washington to 311 yards of total offense on 80 plays.
After Central Washington opened the game with a long, 6-minute, 45-second drive that ended with a missed field goal, Azusa Pacific went three-and-out on its opening possession. Three plays later, freshman cornerback C.J. Broussard picked off a Jake Nelson pass at the 50-yard line, returning his first career pick all the way for a touchdown that gave the Cougars a 7-0 lead with 5:43 to play in the first quarter.
The Wildcats controlled the ball the rest of the quarter, marching 10 plays for 60 yards on a scoring drive capped by Jordan Todd’s two-yard TD run on the first play of the second quarter. Central Washington surprised the Cougars with an onside kick, recovering the ball at their own 47-yard line to lead to set up another time-consuming scoring drive, a 12-play, 51-yard drive that resulted in a 20-yard field goal that pushed the Wildcats ahead, 10-7, with 9:15 left in the first half.
This time, Central Washington kicked it deep to Myles, a speedy freshman wide receiver and return specialist who put the Cougars back in front with his 92-yard kick return touchdown. When the Wildcats took over again, now trailing 14-10, they held the ball for another 8:01, stalling out just out of field goal range after picking up 47 yards on 14 plays before punting. Another three-and-out for the Cougars, just like their first possession, meant Azusa Pacific would take a four-point lead into halftime despite producing 16 yards of total offense on just six plays in the first two quarters.
Watson, who was held to 24 yards on nine carries through the first three quarters, rushed 15 times for 47 tough yards in the fourth quarter to finish with 71 yards on 24 carries, his second-lowest rushing game of the year. The lowest (40 yards) came earlier this season in a 7-3 defeat at home against Central Washington. Stewart added 21 rushing yards to go with his 6-for-11, 95-yard passing effort. Ed Dillihunt caught four passes for 61 yards, and the defense held CWU running back Jordan Todd, who gashed the Cougars for 191 yards in the year’s first meeting, to just 44 yards on 15 carries Saturday.
Next Saturday’s home game against Western Oregon kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at Citrus Stadium.