AZUSA, Calif. -- The unknown factor is no longer a mystery.
A sellout crowd of 2,825 was a first-hand witness to that fact, that, yes indeed, Azusa Pacific does have speed to burn and size upfront to move people around. Those 2 factors alone led Azusa Pacific to a convincing 41-25 season-opening victory over the University of San Diego, Saturday night.
The Cougars used big plays, sustained drives, a balanced offense and a harassing defense to befuddle a San Diego squad that returned 15 players from a team that drubbed Azusa Pacific in last year's season-opener in San Diego. The Cougars returned the favor this time.
Led by senior QB Luke Winslow, Azusa Pacific amassed 460 yards in total offense, balancing the numbers with 235 rushing and another 225 through the air. Winslow himself accounted for 289 yards, completing 15-of-21 passes for 225 yards and 3 TDs, while rushing for another 64 yards on just 6 carries.
"I was most prepared for this game than any game in my career," said Winslow, whose pushed his school career-record to 4,889 passing yards. "I was confident going into the game, but that doesn't mean anything until you go out and play the game. The preparation showed on the field tonight. This is great. It's sets a tone for the season. I couldn't be happier with the outcome."
Winslow completed 14 of his first 18 passes, which included touchdown strikes of 23 yards to Ryan Allen to put the Cougars up 7-0, a 78-yard bomb to Nate Farris to push the lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter, and then a 28-yarder again to Farris as part of a 21-0 third-quarter outburst in which Azusa Pacific ran away from the Toreros to assume a 35-10 cushion.
And while Winslow was managing the aerial attack, the Cougar front line of T.J. Woods, Luc Burke, Rene Arguelles, Aaron Baumann and Dave Wilford were beating down the Torero defense, opening holes for running backs Dan Gray, Ben Buys and Elisha Hall. The Cougars averaged nearly 7 yards a carry on the night, led by Gray, who gobbled up 69 yard on just 10 carries, mostly in the fourth quarter when the Cougars had worn down USD into submission. Buys collected another 66 yards on 14 carries (4.7 avg.) in his first-ever collegiate game. His 3-yard burst up the middle capped the Cougars' third-quarter explosion. Hall opened the game with a 25-yard run up the middle and averaged 4.6 yards a carry on the night.
The special teams got into the act as well, returning 2 kickoffs for scores.
After the Cougars took a 2-touchdown lead, USD answered with 10 straight points to pull to within 14-10 at halftime. However, safety Dominigue Degrammont lit a fire under the Cougars by returning the second-half opening kick-off 87 yards for a TD, reversing the field in the process and then sprinting by every Torero pursuer.
"We thought if we ever got the ball into Dominigue's hands he would make something happen," said Cougar coach Peter Shinnick, "and it paid off."
Allen put a closing touch on the evening's scoring by returning a USD onside kickoff 45 yards for a TD with 20 seconds left in the game.
Not about to take a back seat, the Cougar defense was just as impressive, holding USD to just 106 rushing yards on 45 attempts (2.4 avg.), thanks in part to 6 QB sacks, nearly equaling the team-total of a year ago (8) in just 1 game. End Nick Tavaglione led the charge with a team-high 6.5 tackles, including 3.5 sacks (more than any Cougar had last year), and a boatload of hurries on Torero QB Eric Rasmussen.
"This is a fresh defense, the first time we've played together," said Tavaglione, who is 1 of 6 new starters on defense. "We're only going to get better. Teams better not try to pass on us, because we're going to get their quarterback."
Outside linebacker Anthony Diggs, another newcomer to the defense, came up with a key sack of Rasmussen on a fourth-and-2 play late in the third quarter when USD was pushed into desperation mode. As a result of the Diggs' sack, Azusa Pacific got the ball on the USD 40-yard line and scored 7 plays later on Buys' game-clinching TD.
"Other than a couple of series, our defense played fantastic and that really set the tempo," said Peter Shinnick. "Early-on we played field position football, trying to make sure we were smart. And really it got us our first 14 points."
Diggs finished with 4 tackles, while junior cornerback Brian Rocheleau had 5.5 tackles and broke up 2 Torero passes in the end zone.
The 41 points are the most scored by a Cougar team in 14 games since tallying 54 on Cal Lutheran during the 2000 season. Azusa Pacific, now 1-0, on the season, has won 4 of its past 5 season-openers.
"We can improve on this," said Shinnick. "It's a good first test and we got done what we needed to. The difference was the speed and that's exciting. It changes the tempo of the game."
Azusa Pacific hits the road next week when it visits NCAA Division III power Pacific Lutheran University on Saturday (Sept. 14) in Puyallup, Wash. San Diego, now 0-1, returns home to host La Verne.