BURNABY, British Columbia -- The storyline is well-known by now, but that didn’t keep Azusa Pacific from sticking to its successful script by letting junior tailback Terrell Watson close out the regular season with another record to add to the Cougars’ first Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship season in a 28-19 victory over Simon Fraser.
“I was very proud of our ability to win against a dangerous opponent in a very tough place to travel,” Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz said.
Watson rushed for 120 yards, his ninth 100-yard game of the season, to break one of the oldest records in the Cougars' record book, the single-season rushing record held since 1986 by Christian Okoye. Watson surpassed the record with a 53-yard fourth quarter, moving past Okoye's 1,680-yard mark on a 10-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that gave Azusa Pacific a nine-point cushion at 28-19 with 6:06 left in the game.
“The significance of records to me is more about the great offensive linemen I’ve been blessed to be able to run behind,” Watson said.
Watson, who scored twice to push his season rushing TD total to 20, which is one off Okoye's single-season rushing TD record, now has 1,702 rushing yards this season, and he now sits just 76 yards shy of Okoye's career rushing record.
“Terrell is a fantastic human being who is a warrior on the field,” Santa Cruz said. “If anyone were to break Christian’s records, I’m glad it would happen for somebody as classy as Terrell.”
The Cougar offense may have finished with Watson, but senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart got things moving by completing 10-of-15 passes for 252 yards, his second straight game with 250-plus passing yards. Stewart's first pass attempt was intercepted and the next three incomplete, but he connected for 10 completions in his final 11 attempts of the game, and he averaged over 25 yards per completion.
Not only did the offense follow the blueprint of Azusa Pacific’s current seven-game winning streak, the defense followed suit by creating three turnovers including a fumble recovery on Simon Fraser’s opening possession of the game. With that takeaway, the Cougars extended a streak of games creating a turnover to 17 in a row. When junior free safety Tyler Thornton and senior linebacker Jake Henderson added interceptions for the second and third turnovers, Azusa Pacific won or tied the turnover battle for the 15th consecutive time in GNAC play.
“Our defense just finds a way to get the ball back,” Santa Cruz said. “It’s their mission, and once again they fulfilled it.”
The opening fumble came after Stewart’s pass on the first play from scrimmage was intercepted near midfield. That gave Simon Fraser great field position for its opening possession, but six plays later senior strong safety Nick Grunsky forced a fumble at the Cougar five-yard line, and sophomore defensive lineman Jordan Tanioka recovered at the one to keep the game scoreless.
Simon Fraser eventually scored on its third possession of the game, as Chris Tolbert punched in a two-yard touchdown run to cap an eight-play, 50-yard drive, although the PAT was blocked to give the Clan an early 6-0 lead late in the first quarter. Azusa Pacific’s answer was a quick five-play, 75-yard scoring drive of its own, which Watson capped with an eight-yard touchdown with successful PAT to put the Cougars in front, 7-6, with 31 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Thornton intercepted a pass in the Azusa Pacific end zone to kill the ensuing Simon Fraser drive, although the Clan got the ball right back with a sack and fumble recovery of Stewart at the Cougar 31-yard line. Simon Fraser couldn’t move the chains against the Cougar defense, turning the ball back over on downs in Azusa Pacific territory before scoring again on their next drive on a one-yard QB keeper to take a 13-7 halftime lead.
Simon Fraser took the opening second-half kickoff and drove 70 yards on 12 plays deep into Cougar territory, but Henderson picked off a third-and-goal pass in the end zone. Stewart completed a 35-yard pass to senior tight end Kevin Schick in the middle of the ensuing six-play, 80-yard drive, which was capped by a Ronald Douglas two-yard TD run that pushed the Cougars ahead, 14-13.
Again, Simon Fraser took a drive into the red zone, and again the Azusa Pacific defense rose to the challenge, halting the drive at the 18-yard line, where Clan kicker Chad Heerspink’s 35-yard field goal attempt missed wide right. Stewart connected with junior wide receiver Ed Dillihunt for a 49-yard pickup after Watson gained 17, and three plays later Stewart connected with Dillihunt again for a seven-yard TD that extended the lead to 21-13 with 12:41 left in the game.
The Clan finally took advantage of another trip into the red zone, scoring on a 12-yard pass from QB Ryan Stanford to Lemar Durant with 7:37 to play, but Stanford’s two-point conversion pass fell incomplete to keep the Cougars’ two-point lead intact.
Stewart, backed up to his own 10-yard line, found Dillihunt deep for an 80-yard gain, and Watson scampered the final 10 yards for his second TD and the single-season rushing record. Simon Fraser’s final drive resulted in another fruitless red-zone trip, and Watson converted two first downs on the ensuing drive to close out the game.
“Preparing for this game wasn’t easy, because Simon Fraser is so dangerous but also because we already had the conference championship and bowl invitation wrapped up,” Watson said. “At the same time, we have a goal to win 10 games this season, so we had to put on our hard hats and get to work this week to make sure we can still have a chance to achieve that goal.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific wraps up its second season of competition in the GNAC with a 9-1 conference record and a 9-2 overall mark. The Cougars have accepted an invitation to play in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) Victory Bowl in Rome, Ga., on Saturday, Nov. 23.
“Bowl games are great rewards for a season of sacrifice and success,” Santa Cruz said. “Participating in the Victory Bowl is a blessing to our program, and we’re certainly looking forward to it.”
Dillihunt’s three receptions netted 136 yards, the first 100-yard game for a Cougar receiver this season. In addition to Watson and his 120 yards rushing, junior Ronald Douglas added 29 yards on six carries while Stewart picked up 25 yards on three rush attempts. Junior defensive back Andre Myles registered a game-high nine tackles and forced two of Simon Fraser’s five fumbles in the game, while Thornton had seven stops to go with his interception which he returned 28 yards.
Simon Fraser’s offense gained 501 yards but produced just 19 points, as Stanford completed 25-of-42 for 324 yards passing while Tolbert led the ground attack with 148 yards on 32 carries. Durant finished with a game-high seven catches for 70 yards, and Casey Chin led the Clan defense with nine tackles and a fumble recovery.