/columns/around-the-region/midwest/2016/north-central-ready-for-playoff-return

Tired of being on the outside looking in

Transfer quarterback Broc Rutter is using all the weapons at his disposal in his first season as a Cardinal.
Photo by Steve Woltmann 

North Central was arguably the best three-loss team in all of Division III last year, losing to three nationally-ranked teams – UW-Platteville, Wesley and Wheaton – by a total of 16 points.

But it got the Cardinals no closer to making the Division III playoffs as they were left out despite the showing.

"We know it's not about who you've lost to, it's who you've beaten," said Jeff Thorne, the second-year head coach at North Central after serving under his father as assistant coach. "We played great against those teams, but the reality is that we lost. We know the rules in Division III, if you don't win your conference, you better be clean in your non-conference slate. That's how the system works.

"Those are lessons not only our players learned but our coaches learned. Those are things you remember as a coach and you make sure those things don't re-occur."

Fast forward to this season, the Cardinals (4-0, 2-0 in CCIW) are flying high, ranked No. 6 in the country. They did not back off too much scheduling tough non-conference opponents, beating Robert Morris-Chicago, which is ranked No. 18 in the latest NAIA poll. Thorne said, though, he believes his squad is ready to take the next step and try to win its first CCIW title in three years.

"This group has been really hungry and focused on that 'one week at a time' and when that week comes, we'll be ready," Thorne said. "We will be really excited about it."

Thorne said defensively the Cardinals are probably playing as well as they ever have, limiting their first two CCIW opponents – Illinois Wesleyan and Millikin – to a touchdown each in their first two games.

"Probably the most favorable comparison with our past teams, defensively we're really playing at the kind of level I want to see us playing at," Thorne said. "We have depth along our defensive line that allows us to rotate people in. We have an experienced secondary. They are really playing fantastic defense."

Defensive back Pat Craven (23 tackles), and linebackers Justin Stuursma (21) and Tom Sora (20) lead the Cardinals in stops while the unit as a whole has picked off nine passes in four games. Defensive back Jeremy Niklos has three of those picks.

Offensively, homegrown Naperville, Ill. native freshman Broc Rutter returned home after originally going to Indiana State University to play football. Now, as a second-year freshman, he has been impressive as the Cardinals signal caller, completing 70 of 110 passes over his first four games for 1,069 yards (267.2 yards per game) and 11 touchdowns against two interceptions.

"He's not your typical freshman," Thorne said. "He's very mature. The young guy who we had play for us last year is still in the mix, too. We feel like we have two very good quarterbacks in the fold."

Thorne said that Rutter has what he calls "moxie," the kind of swagger and confidence that allows other players to rally around, despite being a freshman in eligibility and a sophomore by age.

"He has that quality and charisma about him," Thorne said. "He has a really strong arm, especially for this level. He's taller than most of the quarterbacks we've had, about 6-2. He's got great vision and anticipation."

Rutter said recently on the local sports talk show "Red Zone" that he believes the offense is really getting to know what it can do.

"I think we're starting to click together as a group," Rutter said. "We're working really hard getting better and better. We also know we have a lot of room for improvement. Every single week we go into practice knowing that we can get better."

Rutter said his early success with the Cardinals have lied with his teammates, particularly the wide receivers he's throwing to. He has spread the wealth around with Alex Ulmer (18), Austin Breunig (14), Ryan Kuhl (13) and Dylan Warden (12) all having double-digit pass receptions so far this season.

"I think my strength is just having so many guys I can throw to and have complete trust in, knowing they will be in the right spot at the right time," Rutter said. "I have the easy job just getting the ball out of my hand and letting them make the play."

In fact, Thorne compared the Cardinals receiving corps to North Central's 2013 group. That team went undefeated and lost in a dramatic snow-filled national semifinal game against Mount Union 41-40, where the Purple Raiders needed a last-minute drive to prevent North Central from advancing to the Stagg Bowl.

"We have a very, very strong receiving corps, just like that 2013 team and obviously we have an outstanding quarterback," Thorne said. "So we do have some parallels between this team and some of our former teams, but it's still too early to tell how that will shake out, especially having a lot of important games still to play, including this week against North Park."

Thorne said the Cardinals have been good at focusing on each game, but added that he is realistic about the fact that the Little Brass Bell game against nationally-ranked and cross-suburban Chicago rival Wheaton comes after North Park.

"I'm not going to pretend that there aren't a couple of guys looking down the road, but in this conference we can't afford to look past anybody and they know that," Thorne said. "We're certainly not doing that."

School record for Wheaton

No. 10 Wheaton (5-0, 3-0 in CCIW) quietly tied a school record with its 48-24 road victory against Illinois Wesleyan. It was the Thunder's 26th consecutive regular season victory, breaking the record it set over the 2002-2004 seasons. Wheaton has not lost a regular season game since 2013 when it fell to North Central, 35-16. The Thunder went 8-2 that year, losing a rare second CCIW contest to Illinois Wesleyan.

Wheaton was able to solve some of its offensive woes against Illinois Wesleyan on Saturday, roaring back from a 24-17 halftime deficit to score 31 unanswered points in the second half.

"Our offense came to play today," Wheaton coach Mike Swider said after the contest. "They did exceedingly well and our offense kept us in it. Defensively, other than a few deep balls in the first half, we played well. We just misplayed a couple of deep balls."

Quarterback Andrew Bowers went 28 of 35 for 351 yards and four touchdowns. Phillip Nichols caught 21 of those passes for 171 yards. On the ground, Sola Olateju rushed for 171 yards on 21 carries.

Wheaton will now get a chance to extend the record at home against Millikin before the record is seriously threatened against North Central in the Little Brass Bell game the following week.

Rose-Hulman climbs to top of HCAC

Rose-Hulman (4-1, 3-0 in HCAC) has nicely bounced back after a season-opening 14-13 loss to Illinois College to rise to the top of the conference heap, tied with No. 18 Franklin (4-1, 3-0). The past couple of years, the HCAC has been a two team race between the Fightin' Engineers and the Grizzlies. Franklin needed two fourth quarter touchdowns to grab a comeback 42-35 victory in their last meeting. Rose-Hulman must get through Mount St. Joseph on the road and Manchester at home over the next two weeks before it can think about a rematch at Franklin on Oct. 22. Then they will follow up against upstart Bluffton (3-1, 1-1) the following week. It could prove to be an interesting last two weeks of the month in the HCAC.

Game of the week

Benedictine (3-1, 2-0 in NACC) at Concordia, Wis. (2-2, 0-1)—After absorbing an opening day 26-7 loss to nationally-ranked Wheaton, the Eagles have pumped up their offense, averaging 45 points per contest over their last three games. Ryan Sample has led the charge, averaging 331 yards per game with 12 passing scores against three interceptions. Sample is just over 63 percent in completions, going 83 for 136 so far this year. The Eagles, though, are a week away from a big matchup against reigning NACC champs Lakeland, which prevented Benedictine from defending its 2014 title. Concordia, which just lost to Lakeland in a close battle last week, can cause enough problems for Benedictine if the Eagles are looking ahead, especially on the road.

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss

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