North Central's Offense Hits Full Stride at Millikin
Note: This release has been updated to reflect a correction to North Central's yardage totals in the box score.
After seeing its scoring totals dip in its first two College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin games, the North Central College football team headed into Saturday's matchup at Millikin University eager to make every possession count.
Nearly everydrive wound up counting in the scoring column for the sixth-ranked Cardinals, who blasted the Big Blue, 61-14, to improve to 3-0 in the CCIW and 5-1 overall.
North Central rolled up 669 yards of total offense in the contest, establishing a new single-game school record for total offense. The previous record of 657 was set against Augsburg College in 2005. The Cardinals gained 461 of their yards on the ground, establishing the third-highest single-game rushing total in the history of the program.
The Cardinals did take some time to get going, punting away their first possession near midfield. North Central began its second drive at its own 43-yard line following a Millikin punt, and got a 34-yard run from Jordan Tassio on the first play to get into Millikin territory. A 21-yard pass from Tyler Dicken to Kyle Fiedorowicz left the visitors just two yards from the end zone, and Tassio covered the remaining distance on the next play to give the Cardinals a 7-0 lead with 7:13 still to play in the first quarter.
Millikin (3-3, 1-2 CCIW) drove down to the North Central 28 on the ensuing drive, but failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt. The Cardinals moved the ball just across the midfield stripe in four plays before Dicken slung a 49-yard touchdown pass to Fiedorowicz, doubling the team's advantage to 14-0 as the first quarter ended.
The Big Blue ventured into North Central territory on their next drive as well, as yet another fourth-down conversion attempt at the Cardinals' 25-yard line was unsuccessful. Two plays later, Dicken went deep again, throwing a 68-yard TD strike to Bai Kabba to leave the score at 20-0 in North Central's favor. It was Kabba's first action since the season opener at the University of Redlands, when he sustained an injury.
The Cardinals took possession following yet another failed Millikin fourth-down conversion at the Big Blue 46, and drove down to the home team's 14-yard line before fumbling. The ball was scooped up by Millikin defensive lineman Erik Louis Charles, who returned it 86 yards for the Big Blue's first score of the day with 3:36 left in the first half.
Joe Antonacci returned the ensuing kickoff 35 yards to the Millikin 45, where the Cardinals began the final scoring drive of the first half. A pass from Dicken to Nick Slezak and a defensive pass interference penalty moved North Central into striking distance, and Dicken eventually capped off the drive with a four-yard scoring pass to Alex Haan with 1:13 on the clock. The Cardinals went into halftime with a 26-7 advantage.
North Central had the ball first to start the third quarter, but a penalty on the second-half kickoff forced the Cardinals to start on their own nine-yard line. The visitors traveled nearly the length of the field in 11 plays, scoring on Mike Boettcher's 21-yard run with 10:55 on the clock. Three plays later, North Central defensive back Shane Dierking intercepted a pass at the Cardinals' 15-yard line. A 20-yard run by Nick Kukuc and Dicken's 14-yard pass to Nick Hicks preceded a 48-yard run by Boettcher, who finished the drive with a three-yard touchdown run on the next play as North Central's lead ballooned to 40-7.
The Cardinals got their next score on special teams, as Caleb Bednarz fielded a Millikin punt at his own 20-yard line and returned it 80 yards to the end zone, completing the second-longest punt return in school history and running a punt all the way back for the second time this season. Dierking ended the next Millikin possession with his second interception of the day, but the Cardinals were forced to punt. North Central carried a 47-7 advantage into the final period.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Millikin was finally able to score its only offensive touchdown of the afternoon, as quarterback Matt Holmes connecting with running back Sean Dunning on a 58-yard touchdown pass to leave the score at 47-14. The Cardinals responded with a 10-play, 63-yard drive that exclusively featured the running game and ended with a five-yard TD run by Boettcher with 9:25 to play. The Big Blue went three-and-out on their next drive, and North Central took to the ground again, as a six-play, 75-yard scoring jaunt was capped off by Boettcher's 34-yard TD run with 4:36 to play.
Boettcher finished the day with 186 rushing yards on just 15 carries, and tied a single-game school record with his four rushing touchdowns. Kukuc also established a new career best, gaining 152 yards on 12 attempts. Dicken completed 10 of 23 passes for 208 yards, as Fiedorowicz caught three passes for 79 yards and Nick Slezak made a trio of grabs for 38 yards. Tharryn Wright and Joey Michals were the team's top tacklers, each recording eight total stops. The Cardinals averaged 8.8 yards per play and outgained Millikin by nearly 300 yards.
Holmes completed 14 of 37 passes for 180 yards and was also Millikin's top rusher with 85 yards on 14 carries. Big Blue defensive back Nick Kronmiller recorded a game-high 14 tackles.
The Cardinals play their final road game of the regular season on Saturday, traveling to face 16th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan University (6-0, 3-0 CCIW). Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.