The North Central College football team accomplished both of its objectives in Saturday's regular-season finale against North Park University, getting a large number of players into the lineup and coming away with a 35-0 victory over the Vikings at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The Cardinals (9-1, 7-0 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin) clinched their second straight outright CCIW Championship and extended their winning streak in regular-season home games to 24 consecutive games. It was also North Central's 19th straight win over the Vikings.
"Today we wanted to have our number twos get a lot of reps just to make sure they're up to speed for the playoffs, and some guys were just a little too banged up to play today," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "This was a good way to rest them and keep them out of practice for a week.
"The boys have done a wonderful job and they really stuck together and worked very hard. I'm very proud of the team today."
The Cardinals moved in front on the game's first possession, driving 73 yards in seven plays. Tyler Dicken got the hosts on the board with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Bai Kabba with 11:55 on the clock in the first quarter. North Park (3-7, 0-7 CCIW) threatened to put together a scoring drive of its own late in the first period, but a 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Alex Pirela as time expired.
Taking possession at its own 20-yard line, North Central embarked on its second scoring drive of the day, running the ball seven times in an eight-play, 80-yard drive. Nick Kukuc capped off the possession with a 15-yard TD run and doubled the Cardinals' lead to 14-0 with 11:13 left in the first half.
Kukuc struck again on the Cardinals' next drive as well. On second down at the North Central 31, Kukuc spun away from a tackler at the line of scrimmage and sprinted down the left sideline, getting a key downfield block from Joe Antonacci on the way to a 69-yard touchdown run with 4:44 left until halftime.
"Overall the offense played well, there are still some things we need to work on just like every week," Kukuc said. "At first we had a slow start but ended up getting on a roll."
The Cardinals' final score of the first half came just before the break. Defensive back Stewart Charles picked off a North Park pass at the North Central 12 with just under a minute to play, and Dicken passed twice to Jeff Stolzenburg and got a 31-yard run from Kukuc before throwing an 11-yard scoring strike to Kyle Fiedorowicz with 21 seconds left.
The final touchdown of the day came from the Cardinals' defense on the first drive of the third period. North Central's Connor Douglas scooped up a fumbled option pitch at the North Park 40-yard line and ran untouched to the end zone. Douglas also intercepted two passes in the second half to preserve the Cardinals' shutout.
"I just went out and played like we practice," Douglas said. "As a secondary, we made sure we were pass-first and just stuck to the game plan and it turned out well. We really rely on the philosophy of 'bend, don't break' and I just felt like if they were going to throw it to my side I had to make a play or help someone else make a play by staying in coverage."
Kukuc gained a game-high 154 yards on just 10 carries for North Central, while Mike Boettcher ran 11 times for 57 yards. Dicken completed 9 of 15 passes for 153 yards, and Kabba was the Cardinals' top receiver with 56 yards on two catches. Pirela paced the defense with a career-high 11 tackles, while Tharryn Wright, Peter Mann and Jim Clendenning each had nine.
Pairings and host sites for the first round of the 2011 NCAA Division III Football Championship will be announced Sunday at 5 p.m. at ncaa.com.