By Jason Bailey
|Some years, Jordan Tassio might have gotten 300
carries by now and been on the national leaderboard. But with his
157 carries and Nick Kukuc's 126, North Central is better off as a
Photo by David Rich, d3photography.com
The North Central defense has embraced change, except when it happens on the scoreboard.
The introduction of regular substitutions developed the team’s depth and allowed key players to stay healthy, a major reason why the No. 5 Cardinals are second in the nation in points allowed (8.33) behind Mount Union (6.83). They haven’t allowed more than 14 points in a game.
“That’s what it’s really about on defense. Keeping points off the board,” said fifth-year linebacker Matt Wenger, who returned after an ACL injury to his left knee sidelined him in last year’s opener. “They can have as many stats as they want, but if they don’t score, they won’t win.”
Including their important 28-6 win against Wheaton in the regular season, the Cardinals have shut down three playoff offenses that averaged more than 30 points per game. North Central beat St. Norbert 57-7 in the first round of the postseason before defeating Ohio Northern 28-9 last week.
It’s the first time North Central (12-0, 7-0 CCIW) has advanced to the quarterfinals, where it faces defending national champion UW-Whitewater (12-0, 7-0 WIAC). The Cardinals were eliminated in the second round three consecutive years, including a 59-28 loss to the eventual champion Warhawks in 2007, before missing the playoffs last season with an 8-2 record.
A common thread in those playoff defeats was injuries to key players that ultimately crippled North Central. Every team faces injuries, but relying on a star running back or defensive end throughout the regular season often meant that cornerstone was worn down by the postseason.
Before this season, North Central coach John Thorne sat down with his staff and agreed they needed to develop three-deep at every position. Most importantly, they decided to pull starters at times and use players who otherwise would remain sitting on the bench. The experiment has been so successful that the Cardinals are recruiting with the new philosophy in mind.
“We have been playing lots of players at every position, and it’s really helped us have a chance for them to still be healthy,” Thorne said. “They have to be totally, totally unselfish to allow this to happen because their statistical numbers are not going to be things that jump right off of the paper because they’re not able to play a full game. We’ve got a great group of guys who care about each other, and who are willing to sacrifice and be totally unselfish.”
Wenger is a perfect example. He posted sublime numbers in 2008 -- leading the Cardinals in tackles (137), sacks (5.5), tackles for loss (12.5) and interceptions (8) in 12 games -- and was named the CCIW defensive player of the year en route to earning second team All-America recognition. Although this year’s statistics are relatively subdued (107 tackles, 1 sack, 10 tackles for loss and no interceptions in 11 games) and comparable to his sophomore season, Wenger earned his second CCIW defensive player of the year award. He did his damage in less time.
“We tried not to build the defense so Matt would not just be the superstar,” said Thorne, who this season set the school record for coaching victories, currently at 78. “We wanted to build a defense for the long-term. He’s on the sideline quite often in some games.”
Wenger didn’t play in an easy regular-season finale against North Park (the Vikings have lost 75 consecutive conference games) to keep his legs fresh and increase repetitions for backups in a game the Cardinals won handily. Linebackers start rotating in the third quarter to keep players rested if the game comes down to a final drive or to bolster team depth if victory is inevitable.
“I think it’s great. If we’re able to get some other guys in there, it means we’re winning the game. And that’s the goal,” Wenger said. “It’s not about having to play every single play. And guys really embrace that if we have the game in check, let’s get some other guys in there. There’s not any selfishness on this team. Guys aren’t getting mad for not being in there.”
The defensive line rotates eight to 10 players throughout the game, keeping the superstars -- senior end Valente Garza (11.5 sacks) and junior end Willie Hayes (10.5 sacks) are within striking distance of the school’s single-season sack record (14) -- more energized on the field. If the offense picks up a first down, a new defensive line enters the field like a line shift in hockey.
Defensive coordinator Rick Ponx said keeping players involved also makes them more invested in the team and more involved during weekly preparation. He said it was easy in the past for backups to lose interest halfway through the season because they didn’t see any playing time.
“What that’s helped us do is helped the team come close together,” said Ponx, in his first year as defensive coordinator after six seasons coaching the Cardinals’ offensive line. “It certainly keeps people fresh. But now they cheer for each other, and they’re all friends. I think they’re closer as a team, and often times that’s overlooked. There’s no jealousy of who’s getting time and who’s getting sacks.”
Another benefit of using so many players is the ability to present multiple defenses and keep the opposition guessing. North Central technically transitioned away from a 3-4 defense, but starts games in the formation before shifting to a 4-3, 4-4 or 4-2 as the situation dictates. But whatever formation offenses are presented, they know to expect speed.
Several defensive linemen, including Garza, are converted linebackers who are undersized speed-rushers and benefit when they can catch their breath. And it’s Wenger’s game-changing speed and aggressiveness that has attracted a dozen NFL scouts to Naperville, Ill., this season.
“He’s very fast, very physical. Amazing balance,” Thorne said. “He can find tiny little creases and explode through them. His contact level (is great) ... there’s been many games where the game has had to be stopped because somebody has stayed on the ground. Luckily every single time, the player has been OK.”
North Central keeps points off the board in part because its quickness to the ball is magnified when the field shrinks in the red zone. Not having to defend deep pass routes allows players to get more aggressive, and the Cardinals have held opponents without points almost half the time they drive into the red zone (five touchdowns and 10 field goals allowed in 27 possessions).
“Throughout practice, every play, everybody runs right to the ball no matter where it is -- whether it’s a deep pass or a 1-yard run,” Garza said. “In a game, whether we’re a red jersey or a white jersey, it’s a swarm of red or white going right to the ball. If someone misses a tackle, there are five or six others waiting right there.”
It truly is a team effort for North Central, which had four defensive players named to the all-CCIW first team (Wenger, Garza, Hayes and junior safety Josh McLeod, who tied Wenger’s school record with eight interceptions) and four named to the second team (fifth-year safety Derek Sulo, fifth-year cornerback Scott Hogan, senior linebacker Joe Scheiderbauer and junior tackle Peter Bulandr).
North Central will need that overwhelming pursuit to slow down a potent Whitewater offense that averages 43.8 points per game, but the Cardinals have the luxury of home-field advantage after controversially earning the No. 1 seed in the North region. Players don’t think an upset victory over the Warhawks would be cause to celebrate, though, because they have bigger dreams.
“Really, winning the second round isn’t our ultimate goal,” Wenger said. “It’s just another step we’ve got to take to get where we want to be. We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied, and I think that’s the mindset that you have to take. If you’re not winning the national championship, you can’t be satisfied.”