GLENDORA, Calif. -- While players from both Azusa Pacific and Dixie State took a knee and clenched fists with teammates on the sideline, others stood with helmet in hand as Cougar sophomore kicker Jamie Cacciatore lined up the potential game-winning 25-yard field goal attempt at Citrus Stadium Saturday night.
Junior nose tackle Luke Siwek simply couldn’t bear to watch, turning his back to the goalpost and gazing into the crowd to take in the scene by gauging their reaction along with the sound of his teammates.
After waiting out all three Dixie State timeouts, a crowd of 3,217 held its collective breath as Cacciatore sent Azusa Pacific’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference title hopes sailing through the uprights as time expired. His game-winning field goal delivered a 23-20 victory over Dixie State Saturday night to clinch the Cougars’ first conference championship in program history.
“All I could think about was doing this for my teammates and my seniors,” said Cacciatore, six days after the anniversary of the 24-yard game-winning field goal he hit as a freshman in a 23-21 win last year against the same Dixie State team. “I definitely feel the pressure, but during the week my coach takes me through some very challenging things to put pressure on me during practice, and that really helps me a lot in games. It was déjà vu, but I was ready for it all the way; I wanted them to bring it.”
It wasn’t the only historic moment of the evening. Moments earlier, junior tailback Terrell Watson lowered his head for a 12-yard gain to the Dixie State seven-yard line to set up Cacciatore’s game-winner. That final run gave him 123 yards rushing for the game, and it also gave Watson the GNAC single-season record for rushing yardage by pushing his season total to 1,582 (breaking the previous mark of 1,579 set last year by Humboldt State’s Nick Ricciardulli).
“I feel blessed to be a part of this, to do something great with this group of men and achieve a special goal that they set out to accomplish,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “When you win a conference championship at any level, the whole team has to contribute. There isn’t one star that can make it all happen, you have to have a team to win it all, and that’s exactly what this is: a great team. Everybody is trying to find a way to help the team get better, and what you saw tonight was a team victory.”
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Watson had sparked the Cougars to the come-from-behind win with a five-yard scoring run that tied the game at 13-13 with 10:46 to play. On that run, Watson tied the GNAC-record for rushing TDs in a season (18, set in 2002 by Central Washington’s Willie Johnson).
“This win is the best record I could have,” Watson said. “To get a championship with all these seniors and go out with a win like this is better than any record I’ve ever set in my football career. The mindset we took into this game was to try to be dominant, and we knew that no matter how hard it got, we knew had what it took to win this game.”
Azusa Pacific entered the game with at least a share of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship already in hand, because earlier in the day, Western Oregon handed second-place Central Washington a 32-26 defeat that dropped the Wildcats into a tie with Western Oregon for second place in the GNAC with a 6-3 conference record. With the win, the Cougars improve to 8-2 overall, 8-1 in the GNAC, with victories in 12 of its past 13 conference games since dropping the first six GNAC games last year. Dixie State falls to 4-6 overall, 4-5 in conference play.
Senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart threw for a career-high 271 yards on 23-of-34 passing, softening up a Dixie State defense that had limited Watson to 57 yards through three quarters of action. In fact, Watson’s first carry of the second half, a modest four-yard gain, was followed by pass attempts on 13 of the Cougars’ next 15 snaps. That helped create enough room for Watson to cap off a seven-play, 47-yard scoring drive with his game-tying five-yard TD early in the fourth quarter.
“Throwing the ball for a whole quarter was fine with me,” Watson said. “That was a big testament to how our receivers are getting healthier, and I’m fine with playing that way. By the time I got the ball back again, the defense was tired.”
Watson’s next four touches went for 19, 10, and eight yards, setting up the three-yard go-ahead touchdown score from junior running back Ronald Douglas that put the Cougars in front, 20-13, with 2:39 remaining in the game. However, Dixie State running back Joel Davis broke a couple of tackles that resulted in a 44-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass from Red Storm quarterback Griff Robles. His scoring reception, which came two plays after an acrobatic one-handed grab by Mitch Frei for a 25-yard reception in front of the Azusa Pacific sideline, tied the game at 20-20 with 1:51 left.
“You don’t want to give up big plays, but this is GNAC football: this is four-quarter football, this is championship-level football, and you’re not going to be able to win any game easily,” Santa Cruz said. “It wasn’t surprising to us because Dixie State was as hungry to be successful as any other team, but we found a way to win.”
When the Cougars got the ball back, Stewart connected with three different receivers for 29 yards to get the game-winning drive started. His six-yard check-down to Watson for a first down at the Red Storm 30-yard line was followed by four more Watson runs that netted 23 yards to break the conference rushing record while setting up Cacciatore’s game-winning field goal. Stewart completed passes to eight different receivers in the game, with seven players grabbing at least two catches while five players had three or more receptions.
“They came out with a different scheme than we anticipated, so we had to make the adjustments to their game plan and get some plays in the passing game that opened up Terrell to do his thing,” said senior starting center Lance Barker, a three-year starter on the offensive line who has helped lead the way during all three years of Watson’s Cougar career. “He’s a really special back, and we just have to help him up every time he takes a hit. I’m proud of our unit and the job we did tonight making the right adjustments to protect our quarterback and protect Terrell, and they took care of the rest.”
Bolstered by the return of middle linebacker Sean Barber to the starting lineup, Azusa Pacific’s defense came up with three turnovers against Robles, Dixie State’s multi-talented dual-threat QB who entered the game ranked fourth in total offense nationally in NCAA Division II. While Robles gained 74 yards rushing on 17 carries and ended up passing for 263 yards, he was limited to less than 200 yards passing heading until the final 2:32 of the game, when he completed long passes of 25 and 44 yards for the quick-strike tying score. Robles threw touchdown passes to three different receivers, and Frei led the way for Dixie State receivers with six catches for 86 yards.
However, Barber registered one interception to go with a game-high 13 tackles in his first game back since suffering an injury during pregame warmups leading into the Cougars’ Oct. 12 Homecoming win over Simon Fraser.
“Senior Night is a special night, and it was frustrating because I think those emotions got to us a little bit early in the game,” Barber said. “Being injured was tough for me, but I learned a lot about staying humble and continuing to work hard, and I’m thankful for what that taught me. It’s really special to be able to play in this game, and I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.”
Junior free safety Tyler Thornton added 10 tackles, and he registered two more interceptions of Robles to give the Cougars three more turnovers to increase its GNAC-leading turnover margin to plus-12.
“Our defense has played great all season, and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Barber said. “I don’t really see myself as the leader of it, but I guess we’re a collective group who all work together to do this thing, and that makes it a lot of fun to play on this defense.”
Watson gained 53 yards on 17 first-half carries, while Stewart completed seven-of-10 passes for 93 yards, but it was Dixie State’s offense which struck first when Robles capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a 10-yard TD pass to Joe Don Duncan with 7:21 remaining in the second quarter. Dixie State missed the PAT, and the Cougars answered with a 19-yard Cacciatore field goal with 2:16 left in the half to cut the Red Storm lead to 6-3 heading into halftime.
Robles and Frei connected on a 10-yard scoring pass that capped an 11-play, 81-yard drive on Dixie State’s opening second-half possession, running the Red Storm lead to 13-3 with 10:01 left in the first half. The Cougars answered with a 10-play, 64-yard drive, and Cacciatore split the uprights with a 34-yard field goal that cut the Dixie lead to 13-6 with 5:28 remaining in the third quarter.
Senior defensive end Matt Moody sacked Robles on the final play of the first half, extending Azusa Pacific’s streak for registering sacks to 17 consecutive games, and the Cougars have created turnovers in 16 straight contests while winning or tying the turnover battle for the 14th consecutive time in GNAC play.
The Cougars wrap up the regular season with a Nov. 16 visit to Simon Fraser, and they have been awarded with a spot in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) Victory Bowl in Rome, Ga., on Saturday, Nov. 23.