The North Central College football team showed its contemporaries in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin that the road to the CCIW Championship still runs through Naperville on Saturday, as the Cardinals posted their best effort of the season to date in a 44-10 smash of Elmhurst College in the CCIW opener for both teams.
North Central (3-1) posted a season-high 554 yards of total offense while limiting the Bluejays (3-1) to 198 yards and forcing three Elmhurst turnovers. It was the Cardinals' 14th consecutive win over the Bluejays and the 17th consecutive win against CCIW competition for the six-time defending conference champions.
"We call the non-conference season its own little separate season," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "(Conference play) is its own season. The guys were very excited about playing tonight and I thought they played with tremendous enthusiasm."
The Cardinals took the field on offense first, and opened the game with a flea-flicker play which resulted in a 43-yard pass from Spencer Stanek to Jeff Stolzenburg. North Central advanced inside the Elmhurst 10-yard line before the drive stalled, and kicker Nick Dace came on to kick a 27-yard field goal and get the hosts on the board. A solid kickoff return, coupled with a personal foul penalty, set the Bluejays up with good field position on their first drive, and David Tomis tied the score with a 31-yard field goal with 8:12 left in the first period.
North Central's first touchdown drive started on the Cardinals' 30-yard line late in the first period. Stanek opened with a 32-yard pass to Peter Sorenson, then completed two passes to Ryne Rezac for 20 yards before Nick Kukuc ran around the right side and dove for the corner of the end zone to complete an 18-yard touchdown run. With 2:56 remaining in the opening period, the Cardinals led, 10-3.
The hosts gave themselves some breathing room early in the second quarter, asJordan Tassio broke free for a 50-yard touchdown run with 10:35 on the clock. The Cardinals added another score before the end of the half, putting together a 12-play, 65-yard drive which ate up nearly four minutes. Stanek completed 4 of 7 passes on the drive, three of which went to Sorenson, who hauled in an 18-yard TD pass with 28 seconds before halftime and sent North Central into the break with a 24-3 lead.
"It was nice getting two weeks to prepare," said Stanek, who completed 13 of 22 passes for a season-high 250 yards. "It was nice to be able to work on a lot of stuff we had done wrong in our last game. That's a lot of time to prepare and I think it showed."
Elmhurst threatened to cut into its deficit on its first drive of the third quarter, driving to the Cardinals' 14-yard line before turning the ball over on downs. North Central lost a fumble on its next drive, but forced a turnover on the very next play. The Bluejays, attempting to run their own flea-flicker, fumbled and North Central's Josh Beveridge grabbed the ball to give the Cardinals possession at the Elmhurst 47. On the next play, Stanek fired a deep pass to Patrick Mitchell, who outran the Bluejays' defensive backfield for a 47-yard TD.
The Bluejays' next two drives resulted in interceptions, and both turned into North Central points. Shane Dierking stepped in front of a pass on the next play from scrimmage, and Dace later came on to kick a 21-yard field goal. Four plays later,Trey Hartema snared an errant pass to set the Cardinals up at the 50-yard line. Kukuc soon added a second touchdown run, racing 43 yards to the end zone.
"The three turnovers that the defense got were really great," Thorne said. "Nick Kukuc made some great runs, Ryan Kent made some great runs, and Jordan Tassio showed some great speed on his touchdown run. The offensive line had to do a really great job to let that happen."
The Cardinals surrendered their only touchdown of the evening on special teams, as Elmhurst's Alvin Chakungal blocked a North Central punt near the Cardinals' goal line. The Bluejays' Shane Meyer pounced on the ball in the end zone for the visitors' lone touchdown. The Cardinals responded with a score on the ensuing drive, traveling 44 yards on 11 plays and bleeding seven minutes off the game clock before Dace kicked a 36-yard field goal with 6:17 to play.
North Central averaged 8.3 yards per play in the game, gaining 304 yards on the ground. Kukuc ran 14 times for 116 yards, while Kent gained 77 yards on 11 carries and Tassio ran five times for 57 yards. Sorenson was the Cardinals' top receiver with 92 yards on five catches. Alex Pirela and Nick Slezak were North Central's top tacklers, each with five total stops.
Elmhurst running back Scottie Williams, who entered the game ranked second nationally among NCAA Division III players in rushing yards heading into the game, was limited to 67 yards on 20 carries. Quarterback Joe Furco completed 9 of 24 passes for 95 yards. Linebacker Wayne Tuckson paced the Bluejays' defense with 10 tackles and two tackles for loss. Elmhurst was able to gain less than half of the 437 yards per game it had averaged in its three previous games.
"We started strong," said North Central cornerback and defensive captain Josh Mitchell. "Our defense definitely made a lot of big plays and we played well as a team tonight. We had a lot of guys doing their assignments right and doing what they were supposed to do and it showed on the scoreboard."
The Cardinals, who are on the road for the next three weeks, next travel to Decatur, Ill, to face Millikin University (3-1, 0-1 CCIW). The Big Blue lost a 34-33 overtime decision to Illinois Wesleyan University on Saturday.