Shaking off a slow start and putting together what turned out to be a night of record-setting efforts, the North Central College football team won for the seventh straight time on Saturday, rolling past the Elmhurst College Bluejays, 51-10, at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The sixth-ranked Cardinals (7-1, 5-0 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin) won for the 14th straight time in CCIW play and extended their winning streak in regular-season home games to 22 consecutive contests.
North Central established two new school records and tied a national NCAA Division III record on Saturday, as Josh Mitchell's 93-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter goes down as the longest in the history of the Cardinals' program. North Central has returned six interceptions for touchdowns this season, tying the national record. Kicker Nick Dace, meanwhile, converted three field-goal attempts to give him 23 for his career, also a new school record.
North Central forced an Elmhurst punt on the game's opening drive, and took its own first possession 74 yards in nine plays and got a 38-yard field goal from Dace to get on the board first. The Bluejays (4-4, 2-3 CCIW) responded with a field goal of their own as Trevor Spaulding connected on a 28-yard attempt to tie the game with 4:47 left in the opening period.
The Cardinals' second score, also a field goal, was set up by their special-teams unit, as Elmhurst returner Jon Janus mishandled a punt on his own five-yard line and Alex Tripp dove in and recovered the ball. The hosts were unable to punch the ball into the end zone, and Dace came on for a 33-yard field goal to put the Cardinals back in front. After the North Central defense forced a punt, the Cardinals traveled 58 yards in seven plays before scoring the first touchdown of the evening on a three-yard run by Jordan Tassio with 5:51 left in the first half.
Janus' struggles continued on the ensuing kickoff, as the Cardinals' Jordan Dean forced a fumble and Greg Dickson pounced on the ball to give North Central possession once again at the Elmhurst 34.
"Two weeks in a row, we've been able to get a fumble recovery on a muffed punt," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "It was funny, because we got in the huddle and I said, 'Guys, if we can do it on the punt team, we can do it on the kickoff team too.' Maybe I need to say that more often."
Four plays later, quarterback Tyler Dicken connected with tight end Alex Haan on a 21-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 20-3. After another Bluejay punt, the Cardinals took over on offense with just 42 seconds left before halftime. Dicken, however, fired a 21-yard pass to Tassio and a 28-yard strike to Nick Hicks to put North Central in position for a third field goal by Dace. The 37-yard kick split the uprights as time ran out, sending the Cardinals into the break with a 23-3 advantage.
The Cardinals' first drive of the third quarter looked as if it would yield a field goal as well, but a botched snap forced punter Tyler Rasche to roll out and attempt a pass, which fell incomplete. Three plays later, however, the North Central defense forced a punt and the offense returned to the field. Nick Kukuc gained 34 yards on three consecutive runs to jumpstart the drive, and Tassio capped off a seven-play, 57-yard drive with a seven-yard TD run.
The Cardinals stuffed another fourth-down conversion attempt on Elmhurst's next drive, taking over on their own eight-yard line. The drive appeared to end with a punt, but a Bluejay penalty kept the drive alive. Dicken threw a 24-yard pass to Hicks and a 42-yard bomb to Bai Kabba to get North Central into the red zone, and Kukuc ran in from two yards out on the second play of the fourth quarter as the hosts took a commanding 37-3 lead.
"The offensive line really had a much better blocking half in the second half," Thorne said, "which is good to see because a lot of times you go in at halftime and you're ahead, and you come back out and play too cautious, too safe and the next thing you know the other team is back in the game."
Elmhurst scored its lone touchdown of the night on the next drive, as a 59-yard, six-play drive culminated in a 24-yard TD pass from Joe Furco to Andrew Tubek with 12:13 to play. The Bluejays came up with an interception on North Central's next drive, but were unable to move the ball and turned it over on downs at their own 47. Kukuc ran for 35 yards on the next play from scrimmage, and Dicken followed by calling his own number for a 12-yard scoring run with 10:21 to play, boosting the lead to 44-10. Mitchell capped off the scoring by returning an interception for a touchdown for the second time this season on the next drive.
The Cardinals finished the game with 529 yards of total offense. Dicken completed 18 of 33 passes for a season-high 325 yards, as Hicks established career highs in leading the team in receptions (7) and receiving yards (118). Kukuc broke the 100-yard barrier for the third straight week, gaining 141 yards on 18 carries.
"They were doing a lot of things to try to confuse Tyler, and I thought he had a really solid game," Thorne pointed out. The receivers are getting better at reading secondaries, and Nick Kukuc and Jordan Tassio both had some really big runs."
The North Central defense, which did not allow a third-down conversion in 13 attempts, was led by Joey Michals, who finished with nine tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback sack and a forced fumble. Josh McLeod added seven stops and Shane Dierking contributed three pass breakups.
Furco completed 20 of 40 passes for 237 yards, as Joe St. Peter led the Elmhurst receiving corps with 52 yards on six catches. Bluejay running back Scottie Williams, who entered Saturday's action averaging 144 rushing yards per game, was limited to 74 yards on 16 carries. Wayne Tuckson led the Elmhurst defense with nine tackles.
North Central hosts 13th-ranked Wheaton College (7-1, 4-1 CCIW) on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the annual Battle for the Little Brass Bell.