North Central Concludes Regular Season with Conquest of North Park
The North Central College football team's second perfect 10-0 run through the regular season in three years was made complete on Saturday, as the Cardinals clinched sole possession of the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin Championship with a 61-7 rout of North Park University at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
North Central (10-0, 7-0 CCIW) put up its second-highest offensive yardage total of the season and scored twice on special teams as it celebrated Senior Day with the victory.
The Cardinals needed less than two minutes to secure the game's first score. After Shane Dierking returned the opening kickoff 50 yards, the hosts marched 37 yards to the end zone on four plays. Nick Kukuc got the scoring started with a 30-yard touchdown run with 13:04 on the clock.
North Park punted on its first possession, pinning the Cardinals on their own three-yard line. The field position was of little consequence to the North Central offense, which traveled 97 yards on 13 plays for a second straight TD as quarterback Spencer Stanek called his own number for a four-yard score. The Vikings (2-8, 0-7 CCIW) got on the board on the next possession, as Rakim Jones capped off a 69-yard drive with a five-yard scoring run, but Kukuc returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards to the end zone to give North Central a 21-7 edge with 1:04 still left in the opening quarter.
The Cardinals' next drive resulted in a missed field goal, but defensive end Jim Clendenning recovered a fumble on the following North Park series to set the hosts up at the Vikings' 35. Seven plays later, Stanek connected with Andy Stuursma on a fade route for a three-yard TD pass.
Following a North Park three-and-out, Stanek threw deep to Steve Hlavac for a 44-yard completion to the Vikings' nine-yard line, and Kukuc ran around the right end for a score on the following play, extending the lead to 35-7 with 2:44 left in the half. The guests punted once again near the end of the half, and Dierking made use of a wave of blockers to return the kick 78 yards for a touchdown, leaving the Cardinals with a 42-7 halftime edge.
North Central's Chase Pavlick forced a fumble on the Vikings' first play from scrimmage in the second half, as the Cardinals took over on the North Park 26. A six-play scoring drive ended in a three-yard run by Stanek. Late in the period, the Cardinals put together a 76-yard, 14-play drive that ate up more than seven minutes of the clock and was capped off by a 27-yard field goal from Nick Dace.
The Cardinals put together another marathon scoring drive in the fourth quarter, embarking on a 13-play, 93-yard excursion that swallowed nearly eight minutes. Dan Bergagna finished the drive with a 25-yard touchdown run. Dierking recovered a fumble on the North Park 12 two plays later, and Dace tacked on a 21-yard field goal for the final score of the afternoon.
North Central rolled up 506 yards of total offense, 349 of which came on the ground, and owned a 36:57-23:03 advantage in time of possession. The Vikings gained 181 total yards, just 40 of which came after halftime. The Cardinals racked up 218 yards on four special-teams returns, an average of more than 50 yards per return.
Denzel Thompson was North Central's leading rusher, totaling 93 yards on 17 carries. Kukuc gained 86 yards on just eight attempts, while Bergagna picked up 58 yards on eight carries and Stanek ran nine times for 48 yards. Freshman quarterback Nolan Possley added 42 yards on seven carries.
Stanek also completed 11 of 14 passes for 152 yards. Hlavac, returning after missing two games due to illness, caught five passes for 93 yards, while Stuursma made three grabs for 39 yards.
Joey Michals finished with a career-high 13 tackles for the Cardinals, while Tharryn Wright recorded seven.Stewart Charles collected his first interception of the season and Sean Lockwood also recovered a fumble.
Fullback Matt Hassan ran 18 times for 47 yards for North Park. Safety Nick Pantaleo finished with 15 tackles.
Pairings and site selections for the NCAA Division III Playoffs will be announced on Sunday between 2 and 2:30 p.m. on ESPNews. The Cardinals have clinched a spot in this year' s tournament.