GLENDORA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific might be relatively new to the view from first place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, but it looked a lot like a potential champion with a hard-fought 38-28 victory Saturday night over Western Oregon, which was one of the primary challengers blocking the Cougars’ from their first-ever conference crown.
The victory kept Azusa Pacific a game in front of second-place Central Washington as the Cougars improved to 7-2 overall and 7-1 in GNAC play as they won for the 11th time in the past 12 conference games dating back to last year’s season-ending four-game win streak. Western Oregon, which entered Saturday’s matchup just one game behind Azusa Pacific in the GNAC standings, falls two games behind the lead with two to go at 5-4 overall and 5-3 in the GNAC.
Following a proven recipe for success, the Cougars created multiple turnovers and found ways to apply pressure on Western Oregon quarterback Ryan Bergman before unleashing junior tailback Terrell Watson for the ferocious second-half knockout punch.
Azusa Pacific took advantage of a Wolves miscue on the opening kickoff, when Ed Dillihunt jumped on Patrick Tepea’s fumble on the kickoff return. That set up a short field for the Cougar offense, which cashed in for seven points when senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart connected with junior wide receiver Kyle Dravis for a five-yard touchdown pass just 3:13 into the game.
The Cougars held the GNAC’s top scoring offense under 30 points for the first time in seven games, limiting Western Oregon to just 14 points and 209 yards through the first three quarters before finishing with 28 points and 323 yards (80 yards below its season average).
That set up a series of second-half body blows delivered in the form of Watson, Azusa Pacific’s bruising 6-foot-2, 230-pound tailback who leads the GNAC in rushing and has spent the past month rewriting the Cougars’ record books. Watson lived up to his reputation, finishing with 173 yards and three TDs on 30 carries after rushing 20 times in the second half for 130 yards along with all three of his scores.
Senior linebacker Ethan Danielson had a hand in two of Azusa Pacific’s five sacks, and he forced a WOU fumble which was recovered by junior free safety Tyler Thornton, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles to go with his fumble recovery. Senior strong safety Nick Grunsky registered the other turnover, a fourth-quarter interception that sealed the Cougar victory with 1:19 to play.
After the opening score, Azusa Pacific added a 31-yard Jamie Cacciatore field goal late in the first quarter for a 10-0 lead, which was cut to 10-7 when Bergman hooked up with Lucas Gonsalves on a 22-yard TD pass in the first five minutes of the second quarter. The Cougars responded with an eight-play, 63-yard scoring drive which featured Stewart connecting with freshman Tarik Myles for 17 yards and Watson for 33 more before he kept it himself for a two-yard TD run and a 17-7 lead with 6:51 left in the second quarter. Cacciatore had a 55-yard field goal attempt blocked as time expired in the second quarter, sending Azusa Pacific into halftime with the 10-point edge.
Both teams lost a fumble early in the second half, and Jesse Correa missed a 38-yard field goal on Western Oregon’s opening drive after halftime. On the third play after a Wolves fumble gave the Cougars possession at the WOU 45, Watson burst through the line and broke several tackles en route to a 36-yard TD run, his first of the game, to give his team a 24-7 lead. The teams traded eight-play TD drives that pushed the score to 31-14, with Bergman finding Gonsalves from one yard out on third-and-Watson barreled through the Wolves defense for a 15-yard score that kept the Cougars’ margin at 17 points (31-14) with less than a minute to play in the third quarter.
Danielson and Grunsky teamed up for a sack that ended the third quarter, and Bergman was sacked again on the ensuing third-and-long play by Jake Henderson. Western Oregon came up with an interception and long return that set up a 12-yard Devauntae Hoffman TD run that cut the lead to 31-21 with 13:37 left in the game.
The Cougars called Watson’s number again, and he answered with a pair of five-yard carries before punching in another TD run from 19 yards out to push the lead back out to 38-21 with 8:59 remaining in the game. Western Oregon needed nine plays for a 73-yard scoring drive that pulled the Wolves within 38-28, but their onside kick with less than seven minutes to play was recovered by sophomore wide receiver Tanner Henry. Azusa Pacific burned over four minutes with a nine-play, 34-yard drive that ended with a Watson fumble at the Western Oregon 15-yard line. The Wolves, however, gave the ball right back seven plays later when Bergman’s pass was intercepted by Grunsky for the game-saving turnover.
Stewart threw for a season-high 196 yards on 18-of-31 passes (also both season-highs) and rushed seven times for 22 yards, to guide the offense to 393 yards of total offense and six scoring drives. Stewart’s top target was Myles, whose eight catches for 98 yards both represented season-bests for a Cougar receiver. Dillihunt added five grabs for 49 yards, while Watson’s 33-yard catch-and-run pushed him over 200 all-purpose yards.
Defensively, Thornton’s 12 tackles led the way, with Grunsky and junior linebacker Steven Fanua adding eight tackles each. Grunsky also had 1.5 tackles for loss, including a half-sack, along with his interception and two pass breakups. The Cougars allowed just seven first-half points to Western Oregon’s explosive offense, and they controlled possession for nearly 20 of the 30 minutes of action after halftime.
Azusa Pacific extended a number of streaks Saturday against Western Oregon. The Cougars have registered sacks in 16 consecutive games, created turnovers in 15 straight, and either won or tied the turnover battle for the 13th consecutive GNAC game.
Meanwhile, continuing his climb up the Cougar rushing charts was Watson, who set the program’s single-game rushing record (302 yards), tied the school- and GNAC-record for TDs in a game (5) while also breaking career records for points scored, all-purpose TDs, and rushing TDs in a Homecoming win on Oct. 12 over Simon Fraser. Watson’s 173 yards Saturday night pushed him up to third on the single-season rushing chart with 1,459 yards, and his career rushing total of 3,250 yards is just a little more than 300 yards away from the program’s career rushing record of 3,569 yards, which is held by Azusa Pacific legend Christian Okoye.
Two games remain for Azusa Pacific in its pursuit of a GNAC crown. First up is a matchup with Dixie State, another explosive offense which leads the league in total offense and enters next week’s game with back-to-back wins over Humboldt State and Simon Fraser. The Cougars wrap up with a Nov. 16 visit to Simon Fraser and a potential berth in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) Victory Bowl on Nov. 23.