At the beginning of this season, I asked in a column if the football team could return to the form it showed in 2014, which was the last time it won a conference championship. After Chapman’s title-clinching 46-38 win over California Lutheran University Oct. 28, the answer is obviously “yes.”
That success is largely a product of Chapman’s improved run blocking, which has allowed senior running back Joe Mudie, junior running back Marcellus Hunter and senior quarterback Ricky Bautista to keep opposing defenses on their toes. The improvement in the running game has created a “complete offense,” head coach Bob Owens said after the team’s win Oct. 28.
Chapman leads the conference with 482 offensive yards per game, and is third in rushing yards per game, with 188. Last season, Chapman finished in fourth place and was sixth in total offensive yards per game, with 361.4, and seventh in rushing yards per game, with 128.1.
Sometimes, yardage doesn’t equal scoring, but that hasn’t been the case for Chapman. The Panthers have scored 35 or more points in all but one game this season, after only scoring that number of points once last season.
These numbers are indicative of a run game dominated by Mudie, and a passing game led by Bautista and senior wide receiver Jacob Isabel. Mudie leads the conference with 123 rushing yards per game and is averaging 7.4 yards per carry this season after averaging 4.4 yards per carry last season.
Bautista, who is tied for the conference lead with 22 total passing touchdowns, has found success with Isabel, who leads the conference with 119.4 receiving yards per game. The duo, who trained together over the summer, have become the backbone of Chapman’s offense.
The team’s defense doesn’t look nearly as impressive statistically, but when it needs to, it comes up with important plays. In Chapman’s 45-26 win over Redlands Oct 14, Chapman had a pair of crucial defensive stops, forcing Redlands to set up for long-range field goals that it ultimately missed. When Cal Lutheran marched down the field at the end of the game Oct. 28, it was a one-handed interception from senior linebacker Lincoln Faletoi that sealed the win and conference championship.
Thanks to that clutch defense and offensive potency, Chapman has had little trouble in the conference. But in three weeks, the Panthers will play in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. They are likely to face teams like Linfield College and Trinity University (Texas), which they lost to earlier in the season.
Against Linfield and Trinity, Chapman lost first-half leads due to its offensive inefficiency and turnovers. Even in its title-winning performance, Chapman missed three extra points. Had Chapman made just one of those extra points, Cal Lutheran would not have had a chance to tie the game on its last drive.
For Chapman to extend its conference success to the national stage, it will need to continue what it has been doing: jumping on teams early and coming up with defensive stops when it needs them.
Because Occidental College forfeited its season due to a lack of players, Chapman will have an extra week off to recover and clean up any issues in practice before the NCAA tournament starts.
That time will be crucial, because if Chapman wants to stake its claim for a national title, mistakes like missed extra points can’t happen.