A new and improved machine

Last year, Azusa Pacific’s football team lost its first seven games of the season as players were slowly figuring things out. They struggled, but they kept at it and ended up winning the final four games of the year.

Coming into the 2013 season, the Cougars looked to carry in the momentum from the end of last year. Holding a 6-1 conference record and the No. 1 spot after the 24-17 win over Central Washington on Saturday, the rate of APU’s growth continues to increase because of the squad’s determination.

“What’s unique to us and being this type of university and school is we aren’t called to exist in accomplishment,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We’re called every single day to walk with God and give your very best in it. That attitude and mindset is starting to really carry over to the whole team. The coaches and the players, we’re grateful for today, we have big visions and big goals we want to accomplish and we realize a big goal is accomplished through everyday steps.”

There are many pieces that come together to make a successful football team. According to defensive coordinator Brian Willmer, a team must play well in all three areas.

“The offense needs the defense to be great, the defense needs the offense to be great and we both need the special teams to be great,” Willmer said. “For us, we need to continue to be consistent. Really, you play off each other. It’s not so much about what you’re known for as a team, it’s your ability to come together and find a way to get a victory.”

The Cougars have weapons in each of these phases. On offense, their primary weapon has been workhorse junior running back Terrell Watson. This season, he has rushed for 1,321 yards and 14 touchdowns. He is 360 yards away from breaking former NFL running back and all-time APU great Christian Okoye’s record for rushing yards in a season. Watson continues to build a cushion as the all-time Azusa Pacific leader in career rushing touchdowns; he currently stands at 40. According to Santa Cruz, Watson works hard for the benefit of his team, not for himself.

“Terrell sacrifices every day in the offseason to help make himself better, hold his teammates accountable and encourage everybody,” Santa Cruz said. “In the game, he’s not getting stuck in the emotions, he believes and he’s got conviction that this team is going to win. He gives everything.”

The key to the Cougars’ offense is giving the ball to Watson in order to tire out the defense. This, combined with the success of the offensive line, opens up opportunities elsewhere on the field and allows Watson to continue punishing the defense as each game rolls along.

“In boxing terms, I would say the O-line are like the body blows for the whole game. Terrell becomes that knockout punch where all of a sudden, it’s there,” Santa Cruz said. “You keep jabbing with the body blows the whole game, it often works out that the opponent gets tired. You can start to see it. That’s where I really appreciate the offensive line and how they’ve grown up this season.”

Outside of Watson and the O-line, the Cougars have several other weapons to turn to when the run game is not working or to mix things up. Senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart has “matured over the past few weeks as a quarterback,” according to Santa Cruz. The receivers further understand how to read defenses and get open, and junior running back Ronald Douglas gives the team the ability to break to the outside with his blinding speed.

“If you want to win a championship at any level, you have to have a collective group of weapons. Our guys do that and we keep that mindset of preparing themselves to be ready when the time is called,” Santa Cruz said. “You’ve got to have a team to win this thing and I think collectively as an offense and the whole team, there’s a good group of guys who can make plays.”

The Cougars’ defense is just as big a factor to their success thus far, sitting at the top of the conference in the majority of defensive categories. They are second in the conference in overall defense and points allowed, surrendering 348 yards and 21 points per game, respectively. The defensive unit also holds the largest turnover margin with a +10, forcing 21 turnovers and losing 11. The Cougars lead the conference in recovered fumbles with 15.

According to Willmer, whoever wins the turnover margin usually wins the game.

“We have to find a way to get the ball back for the offense as soon as possible and we have to find the best 11 guys that are going to do that,” Willmer said. “Coach [Santa Cruz] has done a great job of putting together a first- and second-string group of guys. If a guy goes down, we’ve had some other guys step in and fill the void. The guys are playing more confident and they understand that they have a central mission this year, which is to get the ball back.”

Santa Cruz expressed the importance of the relationship between the offense and defense, saying the success of one unit feeds the other to match intensity.

“I’m a big believer that defense does win championships. If you can hold a team down to score minimal points, when you do get into those tough ball games like against Central Washington, you’re always in the game,” Santa Cruz said. “It also buys time for the offense to make the adjustments they need to make and it keeps your offense in their game plan. … It’s a symbiotic relationship in how they play off each other.”

APU has performed in the clutch all season. Of the team’s six victories, four went down to the wire and were won by eight points or fewer. Santa Cruz credits the veterans of the team and the leadership they bring to the field and the locker room for the team’s composure in late-game situations.

“No one panics. That’s the thing with these guys; they’ve seen a lot of football. It’s a pretty veteran group when it comes to leadership on the team,” Santa Cruz said. “They’ve been on the other side of the coin, where the game slipped away. … When it comes to halftime, the veteran group is able to provide the leadership, as we have a lot of younger people who are in the mix of things and they just play off of [the veterans].”

The football program has come a long way since the beginning of last season. The players have grown in every area both on and off the field and show no signs of slowing down after Saturday’s victory over Central Washington.

“It’s a very historic and special team,” Santa Cruz said. “Our history as a football program is full of great men, great coaches, unique stories of faith, perseverance, adaptation and achievement. With this team, I’m so proud of their storyline. They have the best record in the GNAC over the last 10 games they’ve played, and they’re hungry to be great just as people.”

The Cougars have three games remaining in the 2013 season. On Nov. 2, they will head to Citrus Stadium to face a Western Oregon team (5-3, 5-2) that still holds a shot at the GNAC title. The following week will be the final home game for the Cougars as they face off against Dixie State (3-5, 3-4). The final game of the season will be at Simon Fraser (2-5).