A return to the friendly confines of Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium
turned out to be just what the North Central College football team
needed Saturday night, as the Cardinals rallied after a
season-opening loss and torched the Bethel University (Tenn.)
Wildcats, 70-26, to put the first mark in the win column in
North Central matched the fifth-highest single-game scoring output in the program's history and also tied a single-game school record with eight quarterback sacks after managing just one in last week's game at the University of Redlands.
"I think the fans really enjoyed watching this one tonight," said the Cardinals' head coach, John Thorne. "The first quarter, out in California, we played really well, but for whatever reason we started having too many mistakes and mental errors, but that happens a lot of times in the first game.
"We have to keep experimenting with different players and different schemes to make sure that by the time we start playing conference games we'll really know what team we have. I was really proud of them tonight."
It took a series for the Cardinals' offense to get on track, as they punted on the game's opening possession. After receiving a punt from Bethel, North Central began its second series at its own 45. Three plays later, Brad Crackel threw deep and found a wide-open Manny Juarez for a 37-yard touchdown pass.
The Cardinals' next drive also ended with a punt, but the hosts got a score from the defense on the ensuing Bethel series. On the first play of the drive, Stewart Charles stepped in front of a pass from Wildcat quarterback Wil Masoud and rambled 30 yards to the end zone, doubling North Central's lead with 6:08 left in the opening period.
Bethel (1-1) got its first scoring opportunity on a turnover as well, as Crackel attempted to avoid a sack by throwing the ball away. The ball instead landed in the hands of Wildcat defensive back Chase Graham, who returned it to the Cardinals' three-yard line. On third down at the one-yard line, Masoud dove forward on a quarterback sneak to get the visitors on the board. A fumbled option pitch on the first play of North Central's next drive gave Bethel another short-field opportunity, but the Wildcats had to settle for a 40-yard field goal by kicker Tim Donegan with 14:53 left in the second period.
A Bethel penalty on the following kickoff set the Cardinals up at their own 49 to start their next drive. Crackel ran 19 yards on the second play from scrimmage, then threw a 32-yard TD pass to Kyle Fiedorowicz to begin what would become a 35-point quarter for the home team.
Defensive lineman Peter Mann ended Bethel's next drive with an interception that gave North Central the ball back at the Bethel 8, and two plays later, Crackel found Fiedorowicz in the end zone again. On the Wildcats' next possession, defensive end Alex Tripp forced a fumble, which was recovered at the Bethel 27 by Shane Dierking. Two plays later, Nick Kukuc ran around the right end and dove for the corner of the end zone to complete an 18-yard scoring run.
Defensive back Alex Pirela forced another fumble at the Bethel 23, and John Focosi pounced on the ball to set the Cardinal offense up with another short trip, and Kukuc capped off a three-play drive with a seven-yard TD run. Bethel went three plays and out on its next drive, and the Cardinals drove 47 yards in five plays and increased their lead to 49-10 after Ryan Kent crossed the goal line from 15 yards out.
"I think coming out here, it was more of a comfort thing than anything, being on our home field," Crackel said. "We got off to kind of a slow start, but then we really got rolling. It was a lot of little adjustments here and there. We needed to get better at the little things, and we did, so now we have to make sure we keep getting better."
The Wildcats opened the second half with their first sustained scoring drive, moving 70 yards in seven plays and scoring on a 13-yard run by Dominique Allen. On the final possession for the Cardinals' offensive starters, however, North Central traveled 67 yards on just three plays and scored on Crackel's 11-yard run.
Cardinal freshman running back Ryan Kent opened the fourth-quarter scoring with a 75-yard TD run, matching the fifth-longest running play in school history. Kent then added his third touchdown of the evening on North Central's next drive, scoring from 45 yards out.
Kent finished with 176 rushing yards on just nine carries, while Jordan Tassiogained 98 yards on 11 attempts. Crackel completed 6 of 15 passes for 117 yards, and Fiedorowicz led the Cardinals' receivers for the second straight week with four catches for 69 yards.
Joey Michals finished with a team-high seven tackles for North Central, while Peter Bulandr collected three quarterback sacks. The Cardinals had 15 tackles for loss in all and forced Bethel to punt 12 times.
"We definitely came out with a bang," said senior linebacker Kane Thompson, who finished with six tackles and one sack. "We've got our swagger back, and we have to stay confident and move on to next week."
The Cardinals host Olivet next Saturday. Kickoff at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium is scheduled for 3 p.m.