The Cardinals' win over the Titans back on Sept. 16 is what ultimately kept North Central in first place in the competitive CCIW.
By Clyde Hughes
"Every game is a big game" is a long coaching cliché, but for the CCIW this year, just about every game has been this season.
The conference has had three teams ranked in the Top 25 most of the season, currently with No. 9 North Central (7-1, 5-1 in CCIW), No. 11 Illinois Wesleyan (8-1, 6-1), and No. 24 Wheaton (6-2, 4-2). Add to that strong seasons by Millikin (6-2, 4-2) and Carthage (6-2, 4-2), which just knocked Millikin out of a share of first place, as the top five teams have a .757 winning percentage overall.
Carthage, one of the hottest teams in the league, will travel to Naperville, Illinois Saturday for another big conference game against North Central.
"This has been a fantastic year for our league," North Central coach Jeff Thorne said. "Carthage is another fantastic team that's going many things very well, including just flat out blocking and tackling. Coach (Mike) Yeager has done a great job out there. Everybody's playing really good football."
North Central, though, owns its own destiny, even after its lone conference loss to rival Wheaton in the Battle for the Little Brass Bell. The Cardinals fell, 42-20, in the postponed game that saw both teams retake the field two days later to play the second half because of bad weather on Saturday, Oct. 14.
"Those were some pretty unique circumstances," Thorne said. "We didn't have time for a wake-up call because it was right to our next game. It did force us to look at some things and make some personnel changes.
"Wheaton is a great football team. They're two plays away from being undefeated this season. Our game with them was a tale of two games, rather than two halves."
The Cardinals, though, wasted no time righting the ship, beating Augustana 54-2 and adding a 60-21 victory over Carroll this past Saturday. If North Central gets past Carthage and then Elmhurst, the Cardinals will carry at least a share of the conference title and the CCIW's automatic bid.
A loss would open the door for Illinois Wesleyan, which is off this week, to win the CCIW and the automatic playoff bid outright, but the Titans still have to beat Millikin next week to secure that spot.
"It’s good knowing that all we have to do is take care of what's in front of us and we'll be conference champions," Thorne said.
Thorne's offense has been sparked by a rejuvenated running game led by Austin Breunig, who is averaging 109.1 yards per game, and the continued strong play of quarterback Broc Rutter. Rutter is completing 64.3 percent of his passes (151-235-4) for 2,153 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Our offensive line is really playing well and we're averaging about 200 yards rushing per game," Thorne said. "That's about where we want to be and where we've been historically. Couple that with a great quarterback, it can make for a tough offense to stop.
"We've had some young guys step up because of injury, and last week we had three freshmen on the field. But credit Broc because he doesn't care who's out there, he's going to make his checks and throw the ball to the person who is supposed to be open."
While the Cardinals offense is averaging 40 points per game, Thorne admitted that it has been a struggle on the defensive side of the ball at times. He lauded the play of senior defensive lineman Emonte Logan for his play as well new starter, junior defensive back Matt Sutherland.
Sutherland was a starter on the North Central baseball team that reached the NCAA Division III College World Series last spring.
"Matt is a two-sport athlete and just one of those guys that everybody just seem to rally around," Thorne said. "He was able to get an interception in his first start (against Augustana) and has done a great job. Our defense is a work in progress. We've had some great games and then some others where we haven't played up to our capabilities."
As the regular season winds down, Thorne said the Cardinals are not out of the woods by any means and need to continue winning if they want to advance to the Division III playoffs, national ranking or not.
"Every week is a tough game," Thorne said. "But that's good because everyone is playing football at a high level. We're looking forward to lining up again and going after it."
Thriller helps Lakeland move toward NACC title
Giving up what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown on the road against a fired-up Aurora team with less than one minute to play did not daunt the Lakeland Muskies at all.
The Muskies, behind record-setting quarterback Michael Whitley, souped up their two-minute offense into a 59-second offense to move downfield. Lakeland needed just 57 of the 59 seconds, capping a 75-yard drive when Whitley connected with Dezmon Eddie for a five-yard touchdown to beat Aurora, 47-38.
|The legend of Whitley added a last-minute comeback to keep Lakeland's NACC title hopes alive.
Lakeland Athletics photo
Lakeland just needs to win one of its final two games to make its third straight trip to the Division III playoffs.
"It was a great football game, the type that neither team deserves to lose," Lakeland coach Colin Bruton said. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for AU and the job their coaching staff did today. This game was like a title fight with both teams landing shots throughout the game."
Bruton said, though, that he does not want to get ahead of himself. He said while the offense is playing with a high degree of confidence, they have to keep the momentum going.
"Whitley plays with such calm in those situations it gives everyone confidence," Bruton said. "If we are fortunate to get there, we want to go into the playoffs playing well. We still have work to do within the NACC. Our goal all year though has been to win a playoff game, not just get there like in years past. Everything we have done since August and the next two weeks will continue to point towards that."
Bruton said despite giving up 38 points and losing the lead late in the fourth quarter against Aurora, he believes the defense is playing better.
"We felt like we were playing better defensively in recent weeks, but AU had a great game plan for us," Bruton said. "We have to play with great emotion on defense. It's about continuing to improve. We will have to be better on defense these next two weeks and beyond to reach our ultimate goals."
Monmouth vs. St. Norbert in the MWC
St. Norbert and Monmouth are on a collision course for the MWC championship after both easily won their divisional showdown games last weekend.
St. Norbert (6-2, 4-0, MWC North), won its sixth straight game beating Macalester (5-3, 3-1), 47-7, behind a solid defensive effort while Green Knights quarterback Jack Becker tied a school record five touchdown passes. Becker completed 21 of 33 passes for 326 yards while St. Norbert's defense held Macalester to negative-34 yards rushing.
It was Monmouth (7-1, 4-0 in MWC South) that used its defense to shut down the prolific Lake Forest offense (7-1, 3-1), 42-7 on the road. Monmouth rolled up more than 500 yards in total offense while DeAndre Wright rushed for 161 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
The victories set up the MWC championship game at Monmouth on Nov. 11.
Franklin one win away from clinching
The Franklin Grizzlies (6-2, 6-0 in HCAC) are one win away from returning to the Division III playoffs after beating Mount St. Joseph last weekend. If the Grizzlies defeat Anderson (1-7, 1-5 in HCAC), they will get at least a share of the conference title and punch their playoff ticket.
Franklin has been led offensively all season by Chase Burton, who leads the HCAC in passing yards (2,907), yards per game (363.4) and completion percentage (67.4 percent). Burton became the program's all-time leader in touchdown passes with 110, breaking Jonny West's previous record of 105.
Game to watch
Carthage at No. 9 North Central, 2 p.m. – We talked some about this game at the top of the column, but Carthage is playing about as well as anyone in the conference, nearly upsetting No. 11 Illinois Wesleyan before handily beating one-loss Millikin last weekend. The Red Men will have one shot to step to the CCIW challenge against one of the best teams in the country.
Player to watch
Deontez Alexander, wide receiver, Franklin – Alexander's 14 touchdown catches from Chase Burton this season ties the nation's lead with Wisconsin-LaCrosse's Nick Holcomb. Alexander, from Indianapolis, takes that lead into Saturday's game against Anderson, where he played before transferring to Franklin.