Sometimes, a game is just a game, but when it comes to Azusa Pacific football homecoming, there seems to be something special going on due to two straight years of outstanding contests.
“When the student body comes out, and the parents are there, and the stands are pretty much packed, there’s a lot of pressure to perform,” senior runningback Terrell Watson said. “It’s just one of those things where everyone happens to play really well.”
This year’s homecoming game will be played Oct. 18 against conference rival Dixie State at 6 p.m. Watson had a legendary performance in last year’s game that will be hard to top.
Going into the homecoming game on Oct. 12, 2013, at Citrus Stadium, APU was 3-2 overall, 3-1 in conference. The Cougars played Simon Fraser, a team that had come into the game with a 2-2 record.
The game did not start off in APU’s favor. Simon Fraser’s Chad Heerspink scored a field goal with 10:63 left, followed by a tying field goal by Azusa Pacific’s Jamie Cacciatore. Before the end of the first, Simon Fraser’s Chris Tolber had one touchdown, and added two more in the second quarter.
At halftime, the Cougars were down 23-3.
“You go to homecoming, and you expect to win homecoming,” senior defensive back Tyler Thornton said. “The fact that we were down 23-3 at the half, I was like, what’s going on? Coach said, ‘You guys wanna sit down and let them keep doing this, or you guys going to something about it?’ Something clicked in my head and we came out of that half and turned it on.”
In the third quarter, Watson scored, and Cacciatore kicked a field goal to bring the Cougars closer with a score of 23-13.
Watson led off the fourth quarter with two touchdowns, including a 70-yard run. Although Simon Fraser was able to score two touchdowns, with another Cacciatore field goal in the middle, Watson took over the scoring again with two touchdown runs near the end of the game, including a 68-yard run. The final score in this come-from-behind game was 44-35, Azusa Pacific University.
“There’s always that tendency to get a little complacent and presumptuous when you’re riding high,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said, referring to the team’s success before going into the game. “Early in that first half, the team realized that you can never presume. Thankfully, last year our guys were able to recover and make a statement.”
Watson ran for 302 yards and five touchdowns that game. Those yards gave him the APU all-time yardage in a game record, previously held by Christian Okoye.
“He’ll do whatever it takes on the field to help our team be successful, and that’s what you saw in that game,” Santa Cruz said.
After that game, Simon Fraser lost four games and only won one to end the season with a 3-7 record. APU, on the other hand, ended the season with a 10-2 record and a conference championship.
The Oct. 20, 2012, homecoming game also had significance for the Cougars. The team was 0-7 going into the game against Central Washington, a team that was named No. 1 in the league and had earlier in the season defeated the Cougars 7-3.
“It was crazy. Anytime you’re 0-7, 0-anything, you get discouraged,” Thornton said. “I remember we had a meeting where all the athletes met up, and the coach kind of guaranteed the win that week.”
Thanks to scoring efforts by Cacciatore, Watson, Kyle Dravis and Ronald Douglas, the team pulled off its first win of the season, 24-17. That victory sparked a four-game winning streak, and the team ended the season 4-7.
Santa Cruz said that the key to success in that game was the team coming together as a brotherhood and sticking together despite having no wins in the season.
“The players committed to the game plan, they kept believing, and everybody gave whatever they had in the tank,” he said.
Coming into this season’s homecoming game, the stage seems to be set for more theatrics. Watson has already gained over 1,000 yards, the first college football player to do so. He’s also scored 12 times.
“It’s a great thing for the offense for sure, but the glory shouldn’t go to me, it should go to the people who block for me,” Watson said.
The team is 5-1 and 2-0 in conference. Earlier in the season, APU played opponent Dixie State and defeated the school in St. George, Utah, 42-23. Dixie State is going into the game with a 0-6 record.
So far, the Cougars have shown tremendous efforts in offense and defense. The most recent win, a massive scoring effort of 55-21, was against undefeated Humboldt State, against whom the Cougars had their only loss earlier in the season.
“There’s something about us and homecoming,” Thornton said. “We’re not really getting into too much hype of the homecoming, it’s just another game where we put in the work and be ready come Saturday.”
Santa Cruz said the homecoming game is something to which he looks forward.
“We do celebrate during the week, remind the team that this is homecoming, how special the night is, but as far as prep, you have to put just as much work into this game as any other game,” he said. “For us, it’s just so exciting to be a part of it.”