Dec 11, 2013
|North Central's defense has
long been a strength, including linebacker Nick Slezak, above,
defensive end Alex Tripp and safety Shane Dierking, the
D3football.com North Region defensive player of the
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Clyde Hughes
Few people (if any) are surprised that the defending Division III champions and No. 1-ranked Mount Union is playing in the national semifinals. The same cannot be said for the No. 4-ranked North Central, which makes its first trip to the Final Four in school history.
That bit of history is not lost on the Cardinals defense, which has played in the shadow of the North Central's high-octane offense all season, led by the nation's passing efficiency leader in quarterback Spencer Stanek.
But the Cardinals' top defensive players said there's no sibling rivalry here, and want to play well enough to create even more history for North Central this Saturday in Alliance, Ohio against the mighty Purple Raiders.
"It's been really cool to see our offense score the points they have this season," said defensive end Alex Tripp, who seen the Cardinals average 46.1 points a game this season. "There are times where we don't get the rest other defenses get because they score so fast, but that doesn't bother us.
"It's more exciting to see them score, so we're not worried about that at all," added Tripp, who has 62 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles on North Central's defensive front line this season.
It's not as if the North Central offense has had to carry the defense. Cardinal defenders are 16th best in the country in total defense, limiting teams to 278.6 yards per contest. North Central was 12th in the country in turnover margin as well, with 20 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries this year, resulting in an average of 1.4 turnovers a game.
The credit for the Cardinals stout defense belongs to new defensive coordinator Mike Murray, who joined North Central this year being away from coaching for several years. Murray, who joined the squad last February, said he knew immediately he had a good enough squad where he wanted to just let them play instead of slowing them down with jargon and details.
"What I saw is that we had a very talented group of players," said Murray, who spent a lot of time coaching at North Central's conference rival Illinois Wesleyan. "We wanted a system in place to let their strengths come through. We didn't want to bog them down with a lot of complications. I thought that we could do a lot of good things by doing a small number of things over and over until we perfected them."
Murray's simplified system won rave reviews from the players. North Central has limited 10 of its 13 opponents this season to less than 20 points.
"In the spring we talked about a simpler scheme," said strong safety Shane Dierking, who leads the Cardinals with eight interceptions. "We're bringing a lot more pressure and I think we're attacking more on defense instead of sitting back. We're trying to force turnovers and give the ball back to our offense. I've been able to get my hands on a lot of balls this season because the guys up front are doing such a great job putting pressure on the quarterback."
One of Murray's biggest moves that helped transform the Cardinals defense was moving free safety Nick Slezak to middle linebacker this season.
"He had a little size (6-2, 225) and length to him," Murray said he remembered when first looking at Slezak on video. "Obviously, if you're going to bring a safety in to play linebacker, you're going to increase your speed at that position. A lot of the game today is played out in the open field and you have to have a little more speed at that position. We wanted to get his athleticism closer to the nose of the football."
Slezak said he had not played middle linebacker since high school but wanted to help the team when Murray approached him about the position switch during spring practice. He had already spent time as part of the Cardinals' receiving corps.
"Switching from wide receiver to safety was a little more difficult," Slezak said. "I was a little nervous at first moving to middle linebacker. Playing linebacker in college football was something I hadn't done. I was able to pick up some things pretty quick and everyone around me helped me out a lot. It's been my favorite college position and I've had a lot of fun."
The move paid off big time for North Central. Slezak enters the Mount Union game as the Cardinals' leading tackler with 106 stops, 71 of them solo and 19 tackles for losses.
"He's been done extraordinary," Murray said with a laugh, sounding happy that his gamble paid off. "It was something he picked up very naturally. We just kept things simple and gave him a number of things to look for.
"But he's an example of the players on this team who told me they were willing to do whatever it took to make it work. When you have that level of selflessness to do whatever it takes, that's going to really help you accomplish a lot of your goals as a football team."
The Cardinal players said, though, they realize that whatever experience they've had so far this season, Mount Union presents a different challenge altogether. They will face a Purple Raiders team that leads the nation in scoring offense, at 49.6 points per game.
Junior quarterback Kevin Burke has become one of the top signal callers in the nation, ranking second behind Stanek in passing efficiency (192.3 rating), seventh in passing yards with 3,351 yards this season, all while leading Mount Union to 536.7 yards in total offense per game, second best in the country.
"One of the things about the Mount Unions and Whitewaters is that they beat teams before they even step on the field," Dierking said. "They have their national championships and tradition. We have to know that we can play with them in all phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams. We can't allow ourselves to be intimidated by who they are. That's going to give us an opportunity to play the best and beat the best."
Murray and his defensive unit said they are ready to make the most out of the school's first ever trip to the national semifinals.