December 1, 2010

Who is North Central?

More news about: North Central (Ill.)

By Jason Bailey
for D3sports.com

Jordan Tassio
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 team.
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.”

Sep. 24: All times Eastern
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Christopher Newport 17, at TCNJ 0
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at Hobart 27, Union 23
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at Thomas More 20, Carnegie Mellon 16
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at Massachusetts Maritime 32, Worcester State 14
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at Endicott 37, Nichols 0
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MIT 30, at Maine Maritime 13
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at Buffalo State 40, Morrisville State 24
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at Salve Regina 48, Coast Guard 10
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St. Lawrence 20, at RPI 14
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at Framingham State 23, Western Connecticut 17
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at Montclair State 21, Rowan 14
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at Stevenson 54, FDU-Florham 15
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at Trinity (Conn.) 38, Bates 7
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at Western New England 59, Curry 28
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at Utica 24, Cortland 13
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Colby 9, at Williams 7
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at Middlebury 40, Bowdoin 3
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at Amherst 34, Hamilton 0
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Kean 24, at William Paterson 13
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at DePauw 66, Hiram 17
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Franklin and Marshall 45, at Juniata 22
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at Kenyon 31, Allegheny 7
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Salisbury 35, at Southern Virginia 0
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Albright 20, at Delaware Valley 17
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Lycoming 28, at Misericordia 24
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at Plymouth State 30, Mass-Dartmouth 14
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at Husson 35, Alfred State 0
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at Springfield 28, WPI 23
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at Moravian 24, Dickinson 10
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at Denison 45, Wooster 7
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at Wittenberg 24, Wabash 14
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at St. Vincent 57, Grove City 32
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at Susquehanna 55, Gettysburg 40
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at King's 21, Lebanon Valley 17
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at Alfred 20, Ithaca 6
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at Widener 25, Wilkes 23
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at McDaniel 30, Ursinus 27
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at Muskingum 28, Marietta 10
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at Minnesota-Morris 28, Iowa Wesleyan 27
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at John Carroll 42, Heidelberg 14
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Ohio Northern 16, at Otterbein 10
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Case Western Reserve 35, at Waynesburg 7
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at Franklin 44, Bluffton 38
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Rose-Hulman 23, at Defiance 15
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at Centre 49, Chicago 27
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at Mount St. Joseph 38, Manchester 19
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Hanover 49, at Anderson 25
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at Merchant Marine 55, Rochester 7
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Johns Hopkins 30, at Muhlenberg 24
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Concordia-Chicago 42, at Maranatha Baptist 10
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Washington U. 36, at Birmingham-Southern 21
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UW-Platteville 56, at Lakeland 0
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 38, Martin Luther 20
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at Eureka 28, MacMurray 13
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at Westminster (Mo.) 35, Greenville 14
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Dubuque 30, at Luther 17
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Monmouth 52, at Lake Forest 6
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St. Thomas 33, at St. John's 21
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at Augsburg 49, Carleton 17
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Bethel 44, at St. Olaf 7
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at Hamline 42, Gustavus Adolphus 40
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at UW-Whitewater 35, Morningside 21
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at Hardin-Simmons 48, Texas Lutheran 38
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at UW-River Falls 42, Southwestern 22
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Simpson 17, at Buena Vista 9
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at St. Scholastica 49, Crown 13
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Cornell 46, at Beloit 41
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at Carthage 27, Augustana 24
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Coe 48, at Nebraska Wesleyan 17
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at Wartburg 56, Finlandia 0
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at Wheaton (Ill.) 10, Elmhurst 6
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Hendrix 42, at Millsaps 14
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Illinois Wesleyan 45, at North Park 10
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at Macalester 34, Grinnell 0
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at Ripon 33, Knox 19
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Illinois College 40, at Lawrence 15
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UW-Oshkosh 77, at Morthland College (Ill.) 0
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Central 42, at Loras 34
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at Geneva 35, Thiel 27
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UW-Eau Claire 40, at Wisconsin Lutheran 14
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St. John Fisher 42, at Brockport 38
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UW-Stevens Point 44, at Adrian 19
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UW-La Crosse 41, at Carroll 7
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at Berry 41, Sewanee 3
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Westminster (Pa.) 38, at Bethany 9
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Ohio Wesleyan 29, at Oberlin 16
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at Tufts 17, Wesleyan 14
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Mount Union 49, at Baldwin Wallace 7
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at Capital 35, Wilmington 21
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at Southwestern Assemblies 23, Austin 17
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Cancelled
Langston at McMurry
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at North Central (Ill.) 42, Millikin 7
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at Chapman 19, Trinity (Texas) 17
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Sep. 29: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Randolph-Macon at Shenandoah
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Sep. 30: All times Eastern
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Emory and Henry at Washington and Lee
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Sep. 24: All times Eastern
Final
at Thomas More 20, Carnegie Mellon 16
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Final
at Hobart 27, Union 23
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Christopher Newport 17, at TCNJ 0
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at Wittenberg 24, Wabash 14
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Final
Salisbury 35, at Southern Virginia 0
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Final
Albright 20, at Delaware Valley 17
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Final
at Utica 24, Cortland 13
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Final
at Stevenson 54, FDU-Florham 15
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Final
at Franklin 44, Bluffton 38
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Final
Johns Hopkins 30, at Muhlenberg 24
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Final
St. Thomas 33, at St. John's 21
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Final
at UW-Whitewater 35, Morningside 21
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at Hardin-Simmons 48, Texas Lutheran 38
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at Wheaton (Ill.) 10, Elmhurst 6
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UW-Platteville 56, at Lakeland 0
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UW-Oshkosh 77, at Morthland College (Ill.) 0
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Central 42, at Loras 34
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St. John Fisher 42, at Brockport 38
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Mount Union 49, at Baldwin Wallace 7
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at North Central (Ill.) 42, Millikin 7
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