Before the start of the season, Azusa Pacific’s football team certainly would not have been voted as the College Division team most likely to succeed.
Not after last season and a 2-8 record.
With 30 lettermen returning, however, it was not too much for Cougar Coach Jim Milhon to expect a little improvement.
But he certainly didn’t expect the Cougars to have a 5-1 record--the best mark among College Division teams in the Southland. Their only setback was a 13-12 loss to Humboldt State.
“We felt this year we would be a little improved, but we are a little ahead of schedule, I think,” Milhon said.
It doesn’t take a lot of searching through the Azusa Pacific statistics to figure out how the Cougars are winning, either.
One glance at the defensive figures is all it takes.
Through 6 games, Azusa Pacific ranks fifth in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics in rushing defense and total defense, and the Cougars are No. 4 in scoring defense. They have allowed an average of 55 yards a game rushing, 188.9 total yards and 9.2 points.
“The defense has been together a while and that’s what it takes,” Milhon said. “The experience factor is helping us a lot.”
The addition of a former major college defensive lineman, senior tackle Gary Willison, a transfer from USC, hasn’t hurt either. Willison is averaging more than 9 tackles a game and has a team-high 9 1/2 sacks.
“I’m not surprised that Gary’s been so successful for us,” Milhon said. “In fact, his presence has made Don Arter (the other defensive tackle) a better player. Now they can’t focus on him.”
The leading tackler, though, has been NAIA All-American Jeff Gustin, who averages 11.8 tackles and heads a strong corps of linebackers that also includes Steve Piro and Phil Heppner, a transfer from Fresno State. The secondary features cornerback Mario Riveros with 3 interceptions.
“The defense has been carrying us,” Milhon said. " . . . Our defense is a pretty solid unit.”
Now, if Milhon could only say the same thing about the offense.
“Offensively we can scare you, but sometimes we scare ourselves,” he said.
Even so, the offense has been considerably more productive than it was last year.
Milhon credits the success partly to the addition of sophomore quarterback Brian Hunt, a transfer from Brigham Young University who has passed for 820 yards and 7 touchdowns.
“Brian has two things that make him a very important member of this football team,” Milhon said. “He’s a very good leader and he knows how to take control of things. . . . He’s also a very accurate passer and that makes him a good offensive weapon.”
The coach said the Cougars have also improved at tight end with the addition of transfers Craig Pannell and John Smith, and in the offensive line that includes center Pat Earnest, 6 feet 3 inches and 265 pounds, and tackles Ron Jung, 6-3 and 275, and James White, 6-5 and 245.
“Doug Barnett, who played for us, is coaching our offensive line and he’s helped us a great deal,” Milhon said. Barnett, who spent two seasons with the Rams, is in his first year of coaching.
There is also improvement in the special teams, which was in evidence when the Cougars blocked a punt with 1 minute 9 seconds remaining, setting up the winning touchdown in Azusa Pacific’s 31-18 win over UC Santa Barbara last week.
“People will probably say we were lucky but, you know, our kids keep trying hard,” Milhon said. “When we were down, a lot of people probably would have said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
But with this year’s team, Milhon has learned never to say never.
The question is whether the Cougars will be able to carry their success into a berth in the NAIA playoffs, which would be their first.
Azusa Pacific was ranked 24th in the NAIA Division II last week and is expected to climb considerably in the poll this week. With 16 teams reaching the playoffs, however, and only 2 games remaining, Milhon knows that his team has only an outside chance.
“It’s hard for us to get in,” he said. “We are the only one in Southern California, and it’s hard for the NAIA people to get a good look at us.”
There is also the problem of Azusa Pacific’s remaining opponents, Menlo and the University of San Diego--two of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s top Division III teams on the West Coast. Menlo (6-2), which will visit Azusa on Saturday, is particularly tough.
“I know Menlo is going to be a real armload,” Milhon said. “It’s our homecoming (game) and there’s nothing they’d like to do more than ruin our parade.”
Milhon is hoping that will help keep his team from looking ahead to a possible playoff berth.
“I will not allow us to worry about the playoffs,” he said. “We just have to win Saturday and let the other things take care of themselves.”
The UC Riverside men’s basketball team will be stepping up a notch in competition when it competes in the Chaminade tournament Dec. 23-25 in Honolulu.
The 8-team tournament will include NCAA Division I teams such as Iowa, Miami of Florida and Old Dominion. Riverside, which was added when New Mexico State dropped out last week, will play host Chaminade in its opener.
Riverside, an NCAA Division II team, and Chaminade, an NAIA team, are the only schools in the tournament that are not Division I. But Riverside Coach John Masi is looking forward to the opportunity to play giant killer.
“Besides the competition, it gives our schedule great credibility,” Masi said. “For our players, it will be exciting. It should give our program a boost and some notoriety.”
College Division Notes
Occidental (5-2) lost its chance to reach the NCAA Division III football playoffs in a 17-6 loss to Menlo last Saturday but the Tigers still figure to win the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. . . . Westmont’s men’s soccer team, which wrapped up the Golden State Athletic Conference title with a 5-0 win over Cal Baptist, did not allow a goal in conference play. The Warriors, who finished 7-0 in conference play and 14-5 overall, will play host to the winner of today’s Cal Lutheran-Southern California College game in their NAIA District III playoff opener Saturday. Biola visits The Master’s in the other semifinal game Saturday.
Biola, ranked No. 3 in the NAIA at 24-2 overall, is the solid favorite in the NAIA District III women’s volleyball playoffs starting today.The Eagles are the host team and will play an as yet undetermined opponent in their opener Friday. . . . The Cal State Northridge women’s volleyball team extended its winning streak in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. to 49 matches with victories over Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State Los Angeles last week. The first-place Matadors, defending Division II champions, suffered their last conference loss to Cal State Bakersfield on Nov. 6, 1984.