It took some time for the North Central College football team to
begin firing on all cylinders during its Homecoming clash with
Illinois Wesleyan University on Saturday, but a series of big plays
in all three phases of the game helped the Cardinals break open a
close game and pull away from the Titans for a 30-7 victory at
The win was the 17th straight regular-season home victory for the sixth-ranked Cardinals (7-0, 4-0 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin), who avenged their only in-conference loss from last season.
The Cardinals' offense struggled out of the gate, as their first two possessions resulted in turnovers. IWU linebacker Dan Rogers intercepted a Brad Crackel pass on the first play from scrimmage, giving the visitors possession at their own 45-yard line. The Titans drove to the North Central 34, where a fourth-down conversion attempt was unsuccessful. Quarterback Brian Rooney attemped to run for the first down, but was stuffed by Matt Wenger and Derek Sulo.
Three plays later, however, the turnover bug struck again, as the Titans' Michael Whittington snared his team's second interception of the first period. IWU, however, went three plays and out as the North Central defense stood tall once again. The Cardinals' offense put together an eight-play, 46-yard drive late in the first period to set up a 32-yard field goal attempt by Nick Dace, but the kick was off the mark as the game remained scoreless.
The hosts broke the scoreless deadlock midway through the second period. A 36-yard punt return by Joe Antonacci allowed the Cardinals to take possession at the Titans' 27-yard line. After a 14-yard run by Jordan Tassio, Crackel dropped back and fired a touchdown pass to Antonacci, giving North Central a lead it would not relinquish with 7:25 left in the first half. The Cardinals threatened to score once again before the intermission, covering 51 yards in 10 plays in just under two minutes, but a fourth-down conversion attempt was unsuccessful with 11 seconds on the clock.
Illinois Wesleyan's first possession of the second half resulted in a turnover, as Josh McLeod picked off his fourth pass of the season at the Cardinals' 49-yard line. Just one play later, North Central was in the end zone again as Crackel, scrambling to his right to avoid the Titans' pass rush, threw to Manny Juarez for a 51-yard score. Juarez now has two TD receptions in the past three games, both of which have covered at least 50 yards.
A short Illinois Wesleyan punt allowed the Cardinals to start their next scoring drive at the Titans' 45. Tassio ran the ball on six straight plays, covering 48 yards, and played the pivotal role in setting up a 22-yard field goal attempt for Dace. The freshman split the uprights, extending North Central's lead to 17-0 with 1:28 left in the third period.
The North Central defense followed with its second touchdown of the year on the following possession. Rooney, seeking to make a play on third down, attempted to lateral to running back Bo Lanter, but the ball hit the turf, resulting in a fumble. Matt Wenger scooped up the ball and rambled 21 yards to the goal line on the final play of the third period, giving the Cardinals a 23-0 advantage as the fourth quarter beckoned.
The Cardinals forced yet another turnover on the ensuing drive, as Tharryn Wright intercepted Rooney's pass at the IWU 44 and returned it 31 yards to the 13-yard line. Three plays later, Crackel lofted the ball to the left corner of the end zone, dropping it into the hands of Andy Stuursma for a nine-yard TD pass.
The Titans (5-2, 2-2 CCIW) secured their lone touchdown on the next drive, as a seven-play, 67-yard drive was capped off by Rooney's five-yard scoring strike to Joey Driver.
Tassio finished with a game-high 116 rushing yards on 16 carries, while Crackel was 9 of 17 passing for 128 yards. Stuursma caught a team-best four passes for 40 yards. Wenger paced North Central's defense with a season-high 14 tackles, while Peter Bulandr established a new career high with seven total stops. Joe Schneiderbauer also intercepted a pass for the Cardinals.
Eli Williams was IWU's top ground gainer with 78 yards on 18 carries. Rooney completed 14 of 30 passes for 116 yards and ran for 44 yards on 18 attempts. Driver was the team's top receiver with 10 catches for 72 yards, and linebacker Ryan Gresko totaled team highs of 11 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
The Cardinals travel to Elmhurst College on Saturday. Kickoff at Langhorst Field is scheduled for 1 p.m.