The home portion of the regular-season schedule came to a disappointing end for the North Central College football team on Saturday, as the Cardinals suffered a 35-21 loss to College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) rival Wheaton College on Senior Day at Benedetti-Werhli Stadium.
The loss was the first in conference play for the seventh-ranked Cardinals (7-2, 5-1 CCIW) since a 28-22 overtime setback at Illinois Wesleyan University on Oct. 31, 2009, snapping a 21-game winning streak in CCIW play. The 24th-ranked Thunder posted their first win over North Central since 2007 and regained possession of the Little Brass Bell, the traveling trophy between the two teams, after four straight defeats.
"Wheaton played great football," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "They deserved to win. They ran faster, they hit harder, and they executed better. Their coaches did a great job getting them ready and their players really played a great game."
North Central and Wheaton are now both part of a three-way tie for first place in the CCIW standings with Elmhurst College. The Cardinals can receive the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Football Championship with a win next Saturday at Augustana College and a win by Elmhurst over Illinois Wesleyan.
"We've got to put some stuff back together and see if we're good enough to beat Augustana now," Thorne said. "These seniors have been a great group to have here, and they have been working very hard to win this championship. We cannot let all that hard work go to waste."
Wheaton (7-2, 5-1) opened the scoring with one of several extended offensive drives in the first period, driving 87 yards in 17 plays and eating up more than eight minutes of game clock before quarterback Jordan Roberts rolled to his right and found fullback Stephen Seitz for a two-yard touchdown pass with 4:10 on the clock. The Thunder were in position to score again before Cardinal linebacker Joey Michals intercepted a pass deep in North Central territory and returned it 60 yards to the Wheaton 38-yard line.
North Central signal-caller Spencer Stanek called his own number on a 33-yard option run to set the Cardinals up at the Wheaton three-yard line, and Nick Kukuctook an option pitch from Jordan Tassio from a yard out on third down to tie the score at 7-7 with 11:25 left in the second quarter.
Wheaton pulled ahead once again midway through the second period on a one-play drive. After taking possession on his own 39 following a Cardinal punt, Roberts connected with wideout Morgan Cook for a 61-yard TD pass which wound up sending the Thunder into halftime with a 14-7 advantage.
The visitors took control of the game in the third period with a pair of lengthy scoring drives. The Thunder took the first possession of the second half 70 yards in 10 plays and scored on Roberts' six-yard run. A North Central fumble, one of four lost Cardinal fumbles during the afternoon, was recovered by Wheaton's Brett Anderson and Thunder's two-yard line. Wheaton then embarked on a 17-play, 98-yard trek which ended in Roberts running in for another score, this time from five yards out.
North Central threatened to return to contention early in the fourth quarter, as Stanek completed a 47-yard TD pass to Halaiano Fuentes and the Cardinals took over following a missed Wheaton field goal on the ensuing drive. The hosts drove into Wheaton territory once again, but Stanek was sacked and fumbled at the Thunder 28. Wheaton linebacker Pat Dansdill scooped up the ball and rambled 72 yards for a score to boost the guests' lead to 35-14 with 4:55 to play.
The Cardinals' final drive of the day began on their own two-yard line, but Stanek was able to bring the North Central offense down the field for one final score, completing five of seven passes for 62 yards and finding Jeff Stolzenburg for a 10-yard TD pass with 2:05 left.
Stanek finished the day 24 of 37 passing for 334 yards and also rushed for 48 yards on 10 carries. Nick Kukuc posted a team-high 49 rushing yards on nine attempts while Ryne Rezac grabbed a career-high seven passes for 71 yards andChad O'Kane caught six passes for 80 yards. Michals tallied a season-high 14 tackles for the Cardinals' defense, while Shane Dierking made 11 stops andQuinn Haas tallied eight tackles and an interception.
Wheaton outgained the Cardinals, 480-442, posting the highest yardage total by a North Central opponent this season. Roberts completed 32 of 46 passes for 380 yards and ran for 46 yards on 13 carries. Mark Hiben caught a game-high 12 passes for 127 yards and Cook hauled in 11 passes for 181 yards. Dansdill made 14 tackles for the Thunder.
The Cardinals close the regular season at Augustana on Saturday. Kickoff at Ericson Field is scheduled for 1 p.m.