Win or lose against its longtime nemesis, Azusa Pacific is moving on.
The Cougars will make the switch from NAIA to NCAA Division II football next year, positioning themselves as a more attractive destination for high school prospects from across the Southwest.
But first things first, including what Azusa Pacific hopes is its first victory over defending national champion Carroll College on Saturday at Helena, Mont., in a quarterfinal playoff game.
Carroll has defeated the Cougars in all six meetings, including a 35-21 victory last year in the first round of the playoffs. That game was played in snowy conditions that caused Azusa Pacific's defensive backs to lose their footing on two of Carroll's big plays.
The forecast for Saturday is more favorable: partly cloudy and 39 degrees, with only a 10% chance of precipitation.
Azusa Pacific (9-2) rolled up 587 yards of offense last week in its playoff opener, a 49-26 triumph over Ottawa (Kan.) in which tailback David Trifeletti returned from an ankle injury to rush for 157 yards and two touchdowns in only 12 carries.
It was Azusa Pacific's first postseason victory since 2004, when the Cougars' playoff run ended with a semifinal loss to Carroll.
"That was huge," Azusa Pacific quarterback John van den Raadt said of the Ottawa triumph. "It gives a lot of guys confidence that we can succeed in the playoffs and do great things."
Ending Carroll's reign will probably mean slowing running back Chance Demarais, who leads the nation with 1,502 yards rushing. Azusa Pacific will also have to sustain drives against a defense that is giving up only 256 yards a game, 90 yards on the ground. Carroll (11-1) has won 10 in a row since a 41-33 loss at home against Eastern Oregon in September.
A loss would stick with Azusa Pacific for a while, considering the Cougars won't be eligible for the Division II playoffs until 2014 as part of their transition to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
"You want to finish this thing right," Azusa Pacific Coach Victor Santa Cruz said of his team's run in NAIA, which included a national championship in 1998. "We know we have the defending national champion in front of us."