In their home opener Saturday night, the Azusa Pacific Cougars’ (2-1, 2-0) defense was phenomenal, holding the Humboldt State Lumberjacks (0-3, 0-2) to two points and running their way to a 28-2 victory.
The Lumberjacks are a tough, hardnosed team and gave the Cougars trouble in past matchups. However, the Cougars are continuing to adapt to Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s level of play and are a considerably different team this year.
“I think it’s a signal that the program is still developing in the right direction,” Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We’re getting more accustomed to who the competition is and getting more comfortable through the physicality of it. We played a lot of young guys and the fact that our guys are playing physical for four quarters is a significant difference from last year.”
Both teams had trouble finding chances to score in the first half, going to their respective locker rooms with the score at 0-0. This was a result of the defensive intensity being high for both teams. The first scoring chance for either team was a 40-yard field goal attempt from Cougars sophomore kicker Jamie Cacciatore and it was blocked by the Lumberjacks.
At the beginning of the second quarter, the Lumberjacks were at the Cougars’ 5-yard line. They wrestled their way to the 1-yard line, but could not get past the brick wall that was the Cougars’ defense. The goal-line stand was capped off by Lumberjack junior running back Nick Ricciardulli getting stuffed at the 1-yard line by sophomore linebacker Matt Hackett and senior linebacker Sean Barber.
Barber led the defensive charge with a career-best 15 total tackles. Senior cornerback David Smith finished with eight tackles, and three players finished with seven tackles, including junior free safety Tyler Thornton. Thornton also forced a fumble and intercepted a pass from Lumberjacks’ junior quarterback Kyle Morris. He returned it 99 yards for a touchdown that would seal the deal.
“We had a good scheme, and I just wanted to do my part by keeping things in front of me,” Thornton said. “When the opportunity came for me to make a play, I felt like I did that. Once we shut them out in the first quarter, the confidence kept building, and we just kept getting stronger.”
The Cougar offense was chipping away at the Lumberjack defense all game until junior running back Terrell Watson eventually broke through.
A drive that started with 11:21 left to play in the third quarter opened with a completion from senior quarterback Justin McPherson to junior wide receiver Kyle Dravis. The following five plays were all runs by Watson, slowly inching his way closer to the goal-line. On Watson’s fifth straight run, he barreled through the defense and into the endzone for the game’s first touchdown with 8:37 left in the third.
The following drive for the Cougars resulted in junior running back Ronald Douglas’ 54-yard burst of speed down the right sideline for a touchdown. This came on the second play of the drive and was Douglas’ first touchdown of the year.
“I think with the stable of running backs that we have plus the options that we run, Terrell is not the only running game we have. Ronald Douglas does a good job with his 10.8 (100 meters) speed; he gets to the edge and goes. Those are the things with the gameplan that Coach Carlton and his staff do a very good job of figuring out how to use all those weapons well,” Santa Cruz said.
Watson found the endzone for a second time in the fourth quarter with 12:22 left to play. He finished the game with 155 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Despite his great efforts, Watson refused to take credit for his performance without recognizing the offensive linemen for paving the way.
“I ended up with a good game because the linemen were blocking so well, and we knew that if we kept pounding the ball, eventually things would open up for us,” Watson said. “The touchdowns all go to my linemen, because they’re the ones who allow me to get into the end zone. They know what they have to do, and they just get after it.”
McPherson started for the Cougars at quarterback for the first time since Sept. 22, 2012 at Central Washington. He not only led the Cougars to victory at the home opener, but this was the first time APU has beaten Humboldt State since 2007.
The Cougars’ defense held the 2012 GNAC Player of the Year Ricciardulli to 74 yards on the ground. Holding a talent such as Ricciardulli under 100 yards and no touchdowns was a testament to how much their defensive squad has grown.
“Humboldt State has a great running game led by a guy who’s the offensive player of the league who is back healthy now,” Santa Cruz said. “What our defense did shows a lot of our speed on that side of the ball, and the effort and conviction with which our guys played. In our league, we’ll have to see these guys again in a few weeks, so I know they’re going to make adjustments while we make some adjustments of our own.”
In the meantime, the Cougars seek to continue making adjustments in preparation for next Saturday’s game against the Central Washington Wildcats (1-2, 1-1). The game will start at 6:30 p.m. and will be held once again at Citrus Stadium.