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Football Returns to Playoffs

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November 14, 2010
Gary Pine

AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific is returning to the NAIA Football Playoff Series for the first time since 2005.

The NAIA’s No. 18-ranked Cougars, who closed the 2010 regular season with a 6-3 record, will visit No. 2-ranked and undefeated Carroll College (10-0), Saturday (Nov. 20) in a noon (MST) game at Nelson Stadium in Helena, Mont.

“We’re excited to be back in the playoffs,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Victor Santa Cruz, who was a member of the Cougar coaching staff as an assistant when Azusa Pacific advanced to the NAIA playoffs in 2003, 2004 and 2005. “I feel like we’ve been in the playoffs the last 2 games, fighting for this opportunity to be one of the final 16 NAIA teams to be still playing football the third week of November.”

Azusa Pacific qualified as the highest rated independent team in the top 20 of the final NAIA Coaches Poll released earlier today. Overall, the Cougars are making their seventh NAIA playoff appearance, all in the past 13 years. They are the first independent to qualify for the playoffs since 2005, when Azusa Pacific last qualified. The Cougars are 8-5 all-time in the postseason, winning the national championship in 1998 and advancing to the semifinals in 1999 and 2004.

The NAIA’s winningest program over the past decade, Carroll is making its 11th straight NAIA playoff appearance. The Saints, who are 39-2 over the past 3 seasons, won the NAIA title an unprecedented 4 consecutive years (2002-05) and took the crown 5 of 6 seasons.

“We have our hands full,” said Santa Cruz. “We’re taking on a playoff –tested program that doesn’t make mistakes and plays good, hard football. However, we know them well and are ready to battle them in what should be a great first-round game.”

Saturday’s meeting marks the sixth time Azusa Pacific and Carroll have met on the gridiron since 2004, and the second time in the NAIA playoffs. The Saints have won all 5 previous meetings, including 3 in Helena. Last year, Carroll dropped Azusa Pacific, 35-13, at Nelson Stadium in both teams’ season-opener.

The two programs have met one other time in the playoffs, the semifinals of the 2004 NAIA Playoff Series. In that game, the Saints drove 82 yards in the final 6 minutes, converting a fourth down along the way, and scored the game-winning TD with 1:21 remaining to beat Azusa Pacific, 14-10. Two weeks later, Carroll collected its third of 4 straight national championships.

Saturday’s game can be heard live on the Internet through KBLL radio in Helena.

Click here for the complete listing of first-round pairings in the 2010 NAIA Football Playoff Series.