For the first time in Azusa Pacific football history, the Cougars have made it into the NCAA Division II playoffs.
After going undefeated in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC), winning the conference title and finishing the regular season with a 9-2 overall record, the Cougars will face Sioux Falls in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
“We’re making a name for ourselves, and being a part of this team and making history right now is great because we started something, and that’s going to continue this year and for years to come,” junior strong safety Taliuaki Suliafu said. “The feeling [of getting into the playoffs] was great. I felt like I won the lottery.”
Even with all of the success from the team this year, it wasn’t a guaranteed trip to the playoffs for APU. On Nov. 12, the Cougars lost their final regular season game to Colorado Mesa 33-24. The Cougars fought back from a 17-point deficit after halftime to gain a 24-23 lead over Mesa in the middle of the second half. APU’s chances to win were broken when a Cougars’ field goal was blocked and returned for a touchdown by Colorado Mesa, sealing their victory and earning their spot in the NCAA Division II Playoffs.
“You got to come out swinging right away, because it’s a heavyweight fight. What I liked was our offensive and defensive staff, they made the necessary halftime adjustments, and we roared back to be in the lead in the second half, but then unfortunately, details matter and we didn’t protect the kick well,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “It was unfortunate, but we’ll learn from it and take care of the details this week.”
Sioux Falls, who is currently 11-0 on the season, will present a challenge for the Cougars in their first playoff game. Sioux Falls relies on a rushing attack and a defense that has put up strong numbers on the season. APU comes in as the underdog in this game as the Cougars will look to give Sioux Falls their first loss of the season.
“They’re a great offense for a reason. They know how to move the football. Defensively, we’ve got to make sure that we’re in a place to slow them down, that we’re in a place to get our big plays,” Santa Cruz said. “They’re good, and you see why they’re number four in the nation, and we’re excited to play a great football team.”
The Cougars offense has had tremendous success this year, especially in the passing game. Junior quarterback Andrew Elffers has led the offense, throwing for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, with another seven touchdowns on the ground. Elffers was just recently named GNAC Offensive Player of the Year.
“We’re hungrier than ever to really make a name for ourselves. Our goal isn’t just to make it to playoffs, it is to make a run in the playoffs,” Elffers said. “It all starts throughout the week in practice and putting in the work. I think this group has done a phenomenal job of staying focused throughout the week.”
Even though the Cougars’ first postseason game will be a challenge, the players and coaches are looking forward to every opportunity they can get and believe their mission is far from over.
“We still have more on the table; there’s still more to accomplish,” Suliafu said. “We’re going to stick to what we’ve been doing every week – play fast, create turnovers, stop the run, stop their game and that’s it.”
The Cougars, who are last seed in their bracket at seven, will face the number two seed Sioux Falls in South Dakota on Saturday, Nov. 19. The winner of this matchup will play the winner of the Harding and Central Missouri game on Nov. 26.