For the first time in school history, the Azusa Pacific football team clinched the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship with a game-winning 25-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Jamie Cacciatore as time expired, beating the Dixie State Red Storm 23-20.
The football program officially joined GNAC in 2012, becoming part of a conference for the first time in the program’s 47-year history. And just a year later, the team has won the school’s first ever conference title.
“You feel blessed to be a part of it, blessed to be with these men, to do something great,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “They set out a goal and to see a goal [achieved] like this is special. To be able to see it happen for this school, I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it. I’m so proud for the school, the people in it, Dr. Wallace, and all the way down to the staff and the people that help in facilities.”
The Cougars’ offense started the game slowly, only scoring three points in the first half and going down by as many as 10 points with 10 minutes to play in the third quarter. The comeback started with Cacciatore’s second field goal of the game, bringing the Cougars within a touchdown of the Red Storm.
In their final drive of the third quarter, a drive that followed junior free safety Tyler Thornton’s second interception of the game, the Cougars drove down to Dixie State’s 39-yard line only to throw three straight incomplete passes and end the drive in a punt. The next Cougars possession resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run from junior running back Terrell Watson that tied the game at 13.
Watson ran the ball 28 times for 129 yards and a touchdown. This was Watson’s 18th rushing TD on the year, tying the single-season GNAC rushing TD record set in 2002 by Central Washington’s Willie Johnson. Watson also broke the single-season record for rushing yardage by bumping his total up to 1,582, surpassing the record set by Humboldt State’s senior running back Nick Ricciardulli last year.
The following drive for the Cougars started at their own 19-yard line. Senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart led the offense to an 11-play, 81-yard drive that resulted in a 3-yard rushing touchdown from junior running back Ronald Douglas. This gave the Cougars their first lead of the game, 20-13.
For the first time this season, the Cougars produced more yardage through the air than on the ground. Stewart had his best game of the year, going 23-for-34 for a career-high 271 yards. Although the passing game did not directly result in any touchdowns, Santa Cruz believes the passing game eventually opened things up for their running game, which initially was struggling.
“[We] were able to wear them down a little bit. Another thing is our passing game did so well and that lightened up what [we] could do with the run game,” Santa Cruz said. “[Dixie State has] a very good D-line, they’re very well coached, so we expected them to come out strong. They had a good gameplan, but we were able to figure out our little tweaks that we needed to make and I think the passing game really helped us out quite a bit.”
Three plays and 46 seconds later, Dixie State tied the game at 20 with 1:51 left to play in the game. Senior quarterback Griff Robles completed a 25-yard pass to senior wide receiver Mitch Frei to begin the drive and capped it off with a 44-yard pass to junior running back Joel Davis.
“It makes complete sense that you don’t want to give up big plays, but this is GNAC football. This is fourth quarter football. This is championship-level football,” Santa Cruz said. “You’re not going to win it easy. … We knew that Dixie was hungry just as any other team who wants to be successful and … we found a way to win.”
The quick score left plenty of time on the clock for the Cougars to have the last shot at winning the game. Three consecutive completions from Stewart brought the Cougars to Dixie State’s 30-yard line. The Cougars then simply ran the ball until the clock was nearly spent and with three seconds remaining, froze the clock with their final timeout.
Cacciatore made all three of his field goal attempts in the game: the first was from 19 yards out, the second from 34 yards out, and the third and final that sealed the deal. The game-winner came after three attempts from Dixie State to freeze Cacciatore, but to no avail.
“We’re really confident in him. Jamie was more humored by it than anybody else, knowing that this is what you’re supposed to do,” Santa Cruz said. “This team believes in him and that protection team all did a great job executing, whether it was the long snapper, [senior quarterback] Justin McPherson as the holder, Jamie with the kick and the whole team protecting him is a good group.”
As soon as Cacciatore’s kick sailed through the uprights, the Cougars stormed the field to celebrate the historic win.
“When you win a conference championship at any level, the whole team has to contribute,” Santa Cruz said. “There isn’t one star that could make it all happen. You have to have a team to win it all, and that’s what this is — this is a great team. From everybody — from the redshirts, to the whole staff — everybody is trying to find a way to help the team get better and what you saw tonight was a team victory.”
Senior linebacker Sean Barber returned from the injury he suffered during pregame warmups before the Cougars’ Oct. 12 Homecoming win over Simon Fraser. In the final home game of his APU career, he led the game in tackles with 13 and had one interception.
“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.”
Thornton added 10 tackles to his two interceptions and senior linebacker Jake Henderson also recorded 10 tackles for the game. Barber expressed how proud he has been of the Cougars’ defense all year.
“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.”
Azusa Pacific improved to an 8-2 (8-1) record as Dixie State fell to a 4-6 (4-5) record. The Cougars look forward to finishing their regular season strong as they travel to Canada on Saturday, Nov. 16 to face off against the Simon Fraser Clan (3-6) for their final game of the season.
The Cougars were granted bowl eligibility and will participate in the National Christian College Athletic Assocation (NCCAA) Victory Bowl in Rome, Ga., on Saturday, Nov. 23.