THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – They were part of the first team in program history to reach the NCAA Division III football playoffs three years ago.
The Cal Lutheran seniors figured it was only a matter of time before they became the first to record a playoff victory.
But after coming up empty during three straight trips on the road, they are down to their last chance.
Eighth-ranked CLU hosts No. 14 North Central (Ill.) in the first round Saturday at noon at William Rolland Stadium.
It's the first time CLU has ever hosted an NCAA playoff football game, and CLU's seniors want to take full advantage of the opportunity by adding to their legacy.
"Our class is all about making history and doing things the program hasn't done before," CLU senior defensive tackle Rian Younker said. "It's going to be an electric atmosphere, and we want to go out there and try to take it to them and keep setting records."
North Central (8-2) is the only team in the Division III draw that has to board a plane for a first-round game.
But the Cardinals aren't strangers to travel. They made a trip to Southern California last year to play Redlands.
North Central lost to Redlands 35-29, but gained revenge this season with a 42-16 victory at home.
CLU (8-1) beat Redlands 45-35 in a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game a few weeks after North Central's victory.
The Kingsmen got a glimpse of North Central while preparing for Redlands, and has dissected even more game tape this week.
"It's easy to see why they are a top 10 team every year. They are a big, strong physical football team," CLU head coach Ben McEnroe said. "They run the football well and play great run defense. When you are able to do those two things on a consistent basis, it lands you in the top 25 year in and year out."
North Central is averaging 208.6 yards per game on the ground, led by senior running back Nick Kukuc (100.9 yards per game).
CLU's run defense should receive a boost with the return of Younker and junior linebacker Chris Cabrera from injuries.
"Not a lot of teams can survive the running backs we've seen the last couple of weeks without an All-American defensive tackle and their leading tackler at linebacker," McEnroe said. "I feel like we've weathered the storm, and having them back gives us a little bit more confidence in the ability to stop the run like we were earlier in the year."
After making three straight trips to Oregon to play Linfield in the first round, the Kingsmen are glad to finally be staying home.
"It's nice to be able to know you are sleeping in your own bed every night and not having to worry about getting on a bus and catching a plane," McEnroe said. "Even though the NCAA does a great job with travel arrangements, it's still a change in your routine."
As the buzz on campus steadily increased for the historic game, CLU's seniors tried to keep their focus on the task at hand.
"Those guys are fighting for their football lives," McEnroe said. "It would take something pretty significant to keep any of them out of this game."
No. 14 North Central (Ill.) (8-2) at No. 8 Cal Lutheran (8-1)
WHEN/WHERE: Saturday, noon, William Rolland Stadium
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting.
GAME FACTS: North Central is making the seventh NCAA playoff appearance in program history. The Cardinals are 6-6 all-time, including 2-3 on the road. CLU is making its fourth straight playoff appearance, and is 0-3 all-time with all three losses on the road. North Central averages 208.6 ypg rushing while holding teams to 98.3 ypg on the ground. RB Nick Kukuc has rushed for 1,009 yards and QB Spencer Stanek has thrown for 2,123 yards with 17 TDs and 5 INTs. The Cardinals boast two 6-foot-6 offensive linemen. CLU Sr. WR Eric Rogers has 82 catches for 1,187 yards and 16 TDs. Sr. QB Zach Shultis has completed 130 of 187 passes for 1,698 yards with 24 TDs and only 2 INTs. Fr. RB Romello Goodman has rushed for 1,091 yards. The Kingsmen will have DT Rian Younker and LB Chris Cabrera back from injury. This is the first NCAA playoff home game in CLU history.