|Spencer Stanek and Ryan Kent
help key the North Central offense.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
When North Central's John Thorne gained his 100th victory as a college head coach recently, he only mentioned other portion of his record in response.
"I think I was in charge of the 27 losses," said the Cardinals coach after the game. "I think the assistant coaches and players should be given credit for the 100 wins. They cover up a lot of the mistakes the old guy makes."
In 12 seasons, Thorne now stands at 102-27 (.791). He admits this No. 4-ranked North Central team could be one of his best teams ever. Are the Cardinals good enough, though, to break through and make it the Stagg Bowl?
"That would be a lot of fun for any program to make it to the Stagg Bowl," Thorne said. "We're still growing as a team. We're still improving each week. This is a great group of guys who've stuck together. The seniors were great leaders almost instantly from when they were freshmen.
"Yes, they have a chance to be one of our best team, but that's yet to be seen. We need to keep them a little more healthy and a little bit of luck sure would help."
But just what keeps North Central from churning out outstanding football teams year after year? After all, Thorne has never had a losing season with the Cardinals, coached seven playoff teams after going 181-64 at nearby Wheaton Warrensville South High School.
Thorne credits a little thing called the Cardinal Manual. Every week, before the North Central talks about a single opponent, single opposing player and watch game film, Thorne has his players crack open the Cardinal Manual.
One can say the manual contains a different type of game plan – it gets the players talking about the game plan of life.
"We have a philosophy statement here that's extremely important," Thorne said. "The Cardinal Manual creates a concept about life, how to be a good person, a real man. We want guys to think about faith, family and academics.
"I want them to think about how to be an unselfish person and an unselfish teammate. It's exciting to see these guys open up and start to tell their stories. They learn each other more intimately than just going to practice. It also helped them play harder and fight as a team when they need to do that."
Thorne said giving the items the Cardinal Manual the same importance as scouting reports and wind sprints send the message that the idea of team reaches beyond Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
Besides, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals getting better after their start, which has North Central ranked No. 12 in the nation in total offensive, averaging 525 yards per game, while the Cardinals total passing efficiency, under quarterback Spencer Stanek, is fifth in the nation at 186.5.
The offense behind Stanek seems to be firing on all cylinders, averaging 39 points a game, including giving UW-Stevens Point its only loss the season, 27-7. The Cardinals racked up a school-record 674 yards in total offense while whipping Wisconsin-LaCrosse 41-24, a team they lost to last year.
"He's really got a great grasp of the offense," Thorne said. "Things make so much more sense to him now than it did this year than it did the last two years. That's always a huge part of player's development.
"The way he's reading defenses and staying calm in the pocket has allowed him to make made an awful lot of good audibles. He's running the ball well."
Defensively, the Cardinals are surrendering 13.2 points per game and have only given up more than two scores in a contest once, the opener against Wisconsin-LaCrosse. Thorne said safety Shane Dierking is playing at a high level this season, calling all of the sets for the defensive backs and grabbing five interceptions so far this season, which is tied for the nation's lead.
The coach said he has been especially pleased with the play of Nick Slezak, who was moved from the defensive backfield to inside linebacker this year. So far, he has led the Cardinals in tackles in nearly every game.
"That's a pretty hard move for guys to make," Thorne said. "Nick's has had double digit tackles for us every game except our last one and that's only because the starters played one half. He would have been in double figures again if we left him out there."
Thorne said his biggest concerns right now are injuries, particularly on his offensive and defensive line. He said he is hoping to get several key people healed to not disrupt the success the Cardinals have had offensively and defensively so far this year.
North Central will not defend its College of Illinois and Wisconsin title easily. Both No. 13 Wheaton and No. 23 Illinois Wesleyan are undefeated and play the Cardinals Nov. 9 and Nov. 2 respectively.
"This team has always been good at worrying about one game at a time," Thorne said. "I know they've look at the schedule and know who's coming up and when they're coming up but we try not talk about those things too much and enjoy the week we have right in front of us."
North Central hopes to take that philosophy to another conference title and trip to the playoffs.
Illinois College was stunned by Lake Forest last year 35-28 as the Blueboys lost a chance to go to the Midwest Conference playoffs. Illinois College (5-0, 4-0 in MWC) got a measure of revenge, humbling Lake Forest 55-7 last year. Even though the Blueboys are a pass-first team, running back Cecil Brimmage continues to college real estate like Donald Trump, averaging 166 yards per game, third best average in the country. The quirky problem is that Illinois College and the only other undefeated MWC team, St. Norbert (5-1, 5-0) won't play each other in conference play this year.
After vanquishing Mount St. Joseph 55-27 last week, No. 14 Franklin improved to 3-0 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and 3-2 overall. Jonny West's 21 touchdowns in five games currently leads the nation. His average of 311.8 passing yards is also among the nation's leaders. Franklin's next challenge may come from surprising Rose-Hulman. The Engineers are 4-2 and a perfect 4-0 in conference play. They are scheduled to play in Terre Haute, Ind. on Oct. 26.