Faced with the task of making amends for a pair of season-opening losses on Saturday evening, the North Central College football team did just that, executing efficiently on both sides of the ball and overwhelming the 14th-ranked University of Redlands (Calif.) Bulldogs, 42-16, at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The victory got the 13th-ranked Cardinals (1-1) into the win column following their 21-17 loss to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse last weekend and also gained North Central some revenge for last season's 35-29 loss at Redlands.
"We knew we needed to get better and get back to fundamentals," said senior running back Nick Kukuc, who scored four of the Cardinals' six touchdowns. "Today, we were assignment-sound and we were able to find the end zone. We still need to improve from week to week - three-and-outs, little mental errors, and turnovers can't happen if you're going to be a championship team."
The teams traded extended scoring drives to begin the game. North Central opened the evening with a 12-play, 76-yard possession which ended when Kukuc hauled in a pass from Spencer Stanek and evaded a host of would-be tacklers for an 11-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs (0-1), however, responded with a 13-play, 72-yard jaunt and got a one-yard touchdown run from tailback Brad Crisanty with 4:56 left in the opening period to tie the game at 7-7.
The Cardinals' next touchdown drive started midway through the second quarter after Josh Mitchell returned a Redlands punt 24 yards to the North Central 42-yard line. Stanek completed a pair of passes to Jeff Stolzenburg, totaling 39 yards, to get the Cardinals in striking distance before Kukuc ran eight yards for the TD with 6:58 left before the half. After North Central's defense forced a punt, Stanek engineered a seven-play, 54-yard scoring drive which ended with Kukuc's four-yard TD run with 1:41 left in the period.
Redlands' attempt to pick up a quick score before the end of the half was thwarted by Cardinal safety Nick Slezak, who intercepted a pass and set the hosts up on the Bulldogs' 48 -yard line with 29 seconds left. Stanek's screen pass to Kukuc covered 46 yards and Jordan Tassio covered the final two yards on the next play to send the Cardinals into halftime with a commanding 28-7 advantage.
After surrendering the first Redlands touchdown, the Cardinals' defense limited the Bulldogs to 45 yards on their final six drives of the opening half.
"We tackled a whole lot better after that first drive," said North Central defensive coordinator Rick Ponx. "We slipped on some big plays and some arm tackles that they ran through, and that's all we talked about on the sideline. We stuck to our game plan and we didn't get rattled the rest of the first half."
The third period opened with a rare sequence of passing plays, as three straight plays from scrimmage resulted in interceptions. Slezak came up with his second pick of the night at the Redlands 33, but Tassio fired a deep pass on the ensuing play and was intercepted by the Bulldogs' Vince DiPiero at the visitors' one-yard line. Cardinal cornerback Josh Mitchell, however, claimed an interception of his own at the Redlands 10. Two plays later, Tassio scored from eight yards out to extend the lead to 35-7.
Redlands managed to put together a sustained drive on the next possession, but the Cardinals' Alex Tripp recovered a fumble on the North Central 13 to halt the Bulldogs' process. The Cardinals needed just seven plays to cover 87 yards, highlighted by a 32-yard pass from Stanek to Chad O'Kane, and Kukuc ran in from 10 yards away to extend the lead to its largest at 42-7.
The Cardinals surrendered a safety early in the fourth quarter, as Redlands punter Scotty Miller pinned North Central on its own one-yard line and Stanek was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone on the next play. The final score of the day came when Redlands drove 95 yards in 12 plays against the Cardinals' backups and scored on a six-yard run by Curtis Tanquary with 52 seconds remaining.
Kukuc finished with 60 yards on nine carries, while Stanek completed 12 of 16 passes for 184 yards. Ryne Rezac was the Cardinals' top receiver, making five grabs for 42 yards.
North Central's defense forced five turnovers, including four interceptions, and recorded 11 tackles for loss. Shane Dierking recorded a team-high nine tackles and Tripp posted 2.5 tackles for loss. Trey Hartema also intercepted a pass in the second half.
"This week we really re-wrote our game plan," Ponx said. "We looked at last year's film and what they did to us, and we knew we had to stop the pass. I was happy with the interceptions. We're playing a little different coverage so it's giving us quicker reads."
Redlands quarterback Chad Hurst completed 13 of 32 passes for 122 yards. Tanquary was the Bulldogs' top rusher with 79 yards on nine carries and linebacker Greyson Allman paced the defense with five tackles.
North Central travels to the University of Wisconsin-Stout on Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 1 p.m. The Blue Devils opened the season Saturday with a 31-0 victory over Jamestown College (N.D.)