Taking advantage of a series of big passing plays and getting another stout effort from its defense, the North Central College football team locked down its second straight playoff bid and at least a share of its sixth straight College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) Championship on Saturday, shaking down the 12th-ranked Wheaton College Thunder, 33-7, at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The sixth-ranked Cardinals (8-1, 6-0 CCIW) have clinched the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III postseason and will participate in the playoffs for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. North Central can secure sole possession of the CCIW title for the second straight year with a victory over North Park University next Saturday.
North Central also retained possession of the 'Little Brass Bell' for the fourth consecutive year, giving the Cardinals their longest winning streak against Wheaton since winning six straight from 1977-82.
"We love when we can look back at the history of North Central football and set a new mark," said head coach John Thorne. "This is a great senior class. We love these guys, they worked hard to get this, and saw that it really paid off."
The Cardinals were held without a rushing touchdown for the first time this season, but got a tremendous boost from its passing game, which yielded four touchdowns, three of which went for at least 40 yards. North Central got its first passing touchdown on its first drive, as Tyler Dicken dropped back on third down and fired a 62-yard TD pass to Bai Kabba, and the hosts took a 7-0 lead after less than three minutes of play. North Central took over following a Wheaton punt at its own 43-yard line, and a 42-yard run by Jordan Tassio on the next play put the Cardinals in the red zone. On third-and-goal at the five-yard line, Dicken found Alex Haan over the middle for another score and a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
Haan, who started in place of injured senior tight end Kyle Fiedorowicz, reached the end zone in thrilling fashion on North Central's next drive. On the first play from scrimmage at the Cardinals' 14, Tassio executed a flawless play-action fake and lofted a pass to Haan, who rambled all the way to the end zone for an 86-yard score to complete the second-longest passing play in school history.
"It was amazing," Haan said. "You dream of this coming out of high school. To have my first start against a nationally-ranked playoff contender with a playoff berth and a conference championship on the line, it was absolutely amazing."
Wheaton (7-2, 4-2 CCIW) opened its lone scoring drive of the day with 9:52 left in the first half. Garrett Meador completed three passes to receiver Mark Hiben for a total of 79 yards, including a 50-yard completion, in a seven-play, 94-yard drive before carrying the ball across the goal line himself for a 12-yard scoring run.
Brad Crackel began the Cardinals' first drive of the second half under center and ran 55 yards on an option keeper on the initial play. North Central wound up sending on Nick Dace for a 36-yard field goal to extend the lead to 24-7. Dace tacked on a 28-yarder early in the fourth period for his 12th successful attempt of the season, leaving him one short of the single-season school record he currently shares.
The Cardinals' final score came after the defense stuffed a fourth-down conversion attempt at the Wheaton 40. Dicken lobbed a pass to the end zone on the first play from scrimmage, and Jeff Stolzenburg wrestled the ball away from Thunder defensive back Micah Markley for his first collegiate touchdown.
North Central wound up outgaining the Thunder, 514-250, garnering 274 yards on the ground and 250 through the air. Dicken completed 4 of 9 passes for 116 yards, while Crackel was the Cardinals' top ground gainer with 131 rushing yards on just seven carries. Nick Kukuc picked up 79 yards on nine rushes, while Tassio gained 73 yards on 15 attempts. Haan was the team's top receiver with 99 yards on three catches.
Joey Michals and Tharryn Wright were North Central's top tacklers with seven apiece, while Peter Bulandr picked up two quarterback sacks and Scott Skuteris intercepted a pass.
Meador completed 20 of 37 passes for 194 yards while also leading the Thunder in rushing yards with 45 on 13 carries. Hiben caught five passes for 92 yards. Jordan Langs was Wheaton's leading tackler with seven solo stops.
The Cardinals will look to complete a second straight unbeaten run through the CCIW next Saturday, as they host North Park (3-6, 0-6 CCIW). Kickoff at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium is scheduled for 2 p.m., with Senior Day festivities to take place prior to game time.