The Azusa Pacific Cougars are in their final season in the NAIA, and intend to go out with a bang, opening the football campaign with (cue LeBron) not one, not two, not three…but SIX consecutive home games, starting with Saturday night’s matchup with their perennial rival to the south, the University of San Diego. Here’s the preview:
Match-up: San Diego Toreros (0-0) vs. Azusa Pacific Cougars (0-0)
Saturday, September 3, 6 p.m., at Citrus Stadium in Glendora, CA
Tickets: $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and students
Rankings: Azusa is ranked #15 in the NAIA Preseason Poll. USD is what the FCS calls a “mid-major” (meaning they do not offer full athletic scolarships for football) and are not eligible for the FCS poll. They were, however, picked to finish 4th in the Pioneer Conference, which is composed of USD and nine fellow “mid-majors” scattered across the country, from San Diego in the west to Jacksonville in the east.
Last meeting: Azusa 42, USD 14 (Sep. 4, 2010 in San Diego)
All-time series: Azusa leads, 22-21
Coaches: Azusa: Victor Santa Cruz (6th year, record: 20-32); USD: Ron Caragher (5th year, record: 27-17)
About the Cougars: Azusa returns 17 starters from last year’s 6-4 team that made the NAIA playoffs, snapping a four-year drought. The offense, led by 2010 NAIA Independent Player of the Year Jon van den Raadt, was one of the most prolific in school history, averaging 36 points a game. Van den Raadt threw for 1,638 yards and ran for another 972 while accounting for 28 touchdowns. Junior RB Johnell Murphy, who had 820 rushing yards and a terrific 5.9 yards per carry of his own, will be asked to share the load as the featured back this season. On defense, the Cougars’ unconventional 3-3-5 alignment will look to last year’s breakout star DE Jake Jones for leadership. Jones registered 10.5 sacks last season, the third highest total in the NAIA. Sophomore Sean Barber will be the quarterback of the defense as he takes over the critical middle LB position, while the secondary should remain strong with three returning starters from a backfield that allowed only 132 passing yards per game.
About the Toreros: USD brings 12 starters back from last year’s squad who finished 5-6, but won four of their last five games. Junior QB Mason Mills won the starting job partway through last season and had a good season in his own right, completing over 67% of his passes for 2,160 yards with 18 TD passes against 8 interceptions. Mils will be looking for a new go-to target following the graduation of last year’s leading receiver Godfrey Smith (68 catches, 1024 yds, 7TDs). USD had a backfield by committe last season, with no rusher getting to 500 yards. The Toreros will also be breaking in a new kicker. The defense will again be led by 2011 preseason All-American Mario Kurn, who had 17 sacks last year, tops in the FCS.
Both schools offer audio broadcasts of their football games over the internet. Azusa’s call can be found at http://kapu.apu.edu, while San Diego’s feed of the game (which includes video) can be obtained at http://www.usdtoreros.com.