The North Central College football team enjoyed a promising start to the 2013 campaign, breaking open a close game in the second half and setting a single-game school record for total offense in a 41-24 victory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The sixth-ranked Cardinals compiled 674 total yards, breaking the previous North Central record of 669 set against Millikin University in 2011. They ran 90 plays and completed six touchdown drives which covered at least 73 yards each. North Central put the game away with three straight scores in the second half and matched its highest opening-game point total since a 44-27 win over Benedictine University in 2005.
Leading the offensive charge was senior quarterback Spencer Stanek, who completed 26 of 35 passes for 330 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for a team-high 106 yards and two scores on 15 carries. His passing yardage total is the second-highest of his career, eclipsed only by a 361-yard outing at Cornell College in 2010, while his rushing total was just six yards shy of his output from the entire 2012 season.
"It was great to come out here and win," Stanek said. "It's always nice to start the season like this. We were communicating well on the field and completing plays to maintain that momentum."
After allowing the game's first touchdown, the Cardinals' defense stepped up its performance as well, ending seven Eagle drives in three plays or less and limiting the hosts to 264 total yards, more than 200 less than UW-La Crosse recorded in last week's season opener against the University of Dubuque.
"I'm really happy for the guys," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "This is a good program here, and our guys worked hard and came together the way they were supposed to.
"I thought we were moving the ball quite a bit, but I didn't realize we had that many yards. More and more programs are going to this faster system. We practiced it all spring and through camp, and that's what we're going to try to do. You have to have a lot of depth, and I don't know if we have enough depth on defense, but we did a good enough job on offense to get them enough rest."
The Eagles (0-2) traveled 57 yards in eight plays on the game's first drive, scoring on Andy Sires' eight-yard touchdown pass to Chris Stackhouse. North Central started its first drive on its own nine-yard line, but a six-play drive, highlighted by a 35-yard pass from Stanek to Chad O'Kane and a 21-yard run by Oshayne Brownfinished with Stanek running for a 12-yard TD with 10:30 on the first-quarter clock.
After a UWL punt, the Cardinals ran the ball seven times in a 10-play, 73-yard drive and pulled ahead for the first time when Stanek ran 13 yards for a second touchdown with 4:39 still remaining in the opening period. A trio of first-down completions moved the Eagles into North Central territory on the following possession, and a 22-yard field goal from kicker Matt Van Druten narrowed the lead to 14-10 near the end of the first quarter.
Stanek nearly added a third rushing TD in the second quarter, covering 23 yards on a pair of runs to leave the visitors just one yard short of the goal line. Matt Randolph dove into the end zone with 3:01 left in the half, increasing the Cardinals' lead to 21-10, where it would stand at halftime.
North Central opened the second half on offense and drove to near midfield before losing a fumble. Eagle linebacker Andrew Walsh scooped up the ball and returned it 53 yards to the end zone, closing the gap to 21-17 less than two minutes after play resumed.
The Cardinals responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive which featured 14-yard runs by Randolph and Stanek before Stanek found A.J. Thomas in the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown pass. After forcing UWL's offense to go three-and-out, the Cardinals tacked on another score. Stanek completed a 22-yard first-down pass to O'Kane on third-and-12 and threw a 20-yard strike to Peter Sorenson to put North Central on the one-yard line before Ryan Kent covered the remaining distance for a 35-17 lead with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
North Central's final scoring drive of the day started at the Cardinals' 15-yard line. An 11-yard pass to Kent and a 35-yard toss to Randolph got the guests into enemy territory, and Stanek's eight-yard run set North Central up with a first down at the Eagles' 11. Tyler Dicken entered the contest at quarterback and ran the ball on the final two plays of the possession, including a six-yard TD run with 5:12 to play.
O'Kane and Sorenson each established new career highs for receptions and receiving yards, as O'Kane made nine grabs for 105 yards and Sorenson caught eight passes for 142 yards. Randolph gained 80 yards on 11 rushing attempts, while Kent gained 76 yards on 13 carries and Brown ran 10 times for 54 yards. Stanek passed NCC Athletic Hall of Famer Luther Selbo '68 for third place on the Cardinals' all-time list in passing yards (4,384).
The Cardinals' defense was led by Nick Slezak's nine tackles, while John Focosirecorded three tackles for loss and two quarterback sacks. Shane Dierkingintercepted a pass in the second quarter, giving him nine for his career to tie for eighth all-time at North Central.
Cardinal kicker Nick Dace connected on five of six extra-point attempts, giving him sole possession of North Central's career scoring record (289).
North Central opens the home portion of its schedule next Saturday, hosting the University of Wisconsin-Stout (2-0). Kickoff at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium is scheduled for 1 p.m.