After the offense turned heads in its first two wins of the 2013 season, the North Central College football team turned to its defense to seal the deal on Saturday, as the Cardinals recorded a historic 27-7 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The win was the 100th for head coach John Thorne, who became the second-fastest coach in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) to hit triple digits in the victory column.
The Cardinals' defensive unit was tested early and often, but continually found ways to keep Stevens Point (2-1) out of the end zone. The Pointers advanced into North Central territory six times and were turned away on the first five. The Cardinals had built up a 20-point lead before the visitors secured their lone score midway through the fourth period.
"Our game plan was great this week," said North Central linebacker Nick Slezak, who finished with a career-high 14 tackles. "Coach (Mike) Murray did a great job of sending pressure. We all bought into it this week and it showed on the field."
After averaging more than 600 yards of offense in their first two contests, the Cardinals got the game started with a bang by lighting up the scoreboard on the first play from scrimmage. Quarterback Spencer Stanek fired a pass to the left side to wideout Demarco Tillman, who outraced the UWSP defense for a 75-yard touchdown catch.
The Pointers threatened to counter with a score of their own, driving 56 yards in 15 plays and advancing to the North Central 12-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs. The Cardinals followed with their longest drive of the day, an 18-play, 71-yard jaunt, but came up empty when a 34-yard field goal attempt was off the mark.
The teams traded punts before the Cardinals' defense came up with the first of three interceptions, as linebacker Michael Monterrubio picked off UWSP quarterback Mitch Beau's pass at the North Central 33.
On the ensuing play, Stanek found Chad O'Kane for a 32-yard completion, and after two runs by Zack Pattat, O'Kane came up big again by hauling in a a 23-yard TD catch in the front right corner of the end zone. The Cardinals headed into halftime with a 13-0 advantage, owning a 278-166 advantage in total yards.
Monterrubio came up big on the first drive of the second half as well, ending an 11-play, 65-yard Pointer possession by intercepting Beau's pass at the North Central goal line.
"All the pressure by the defensive line and the coverage by the secondary was huge," Slezak said, "and Michael Monterrubio came up with two big interceptions to bail us out."
The Cardinals were forced to punt on their next possession, but got the ball back three plays later when Connor Douglas intercepted a third-down pass and returned it 36 yards to the Pointer five-yard line. Stanek lofted a TD pass to A.J. Thomas on the next play to extend the Cardinals' lead to 20-0 with 4:43 left in the third period.
The North Central defense forced the Pointers to turn the ball over on downs once again at the Cardinals' 12 eearly in the fourth quarter, but the visitors broke up the shutout on their next drive after a short punt left UWSP just 32 yards from the goal line. Beau found Logan Taylor for a nine-yard TD pass with 7:56 to play.
The Cardinals answered with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive highlighted by a 30-yard pass to Ryne Rezac and capped off by an eight-yard scoring pass to Thomas with 4:03 to go. Thomas has caught three of North Central's nine scoring passes in the early going this season.
Despite a disadvantage in time of possession by more than five minutes, the Cardinals outgained UWSP, 405-329. Stanek established a career high with 364 passing yards, completing 27 of 37 attempts, and found Peter Sorenson nine times for 98 yards. Pattat was the team's leading rusher with 31 yards on eight carries.
Shane Dierking put up eight tackles and Monterrubio totaled seven, while cornerback Jordan Dean stepped up in support of the team's run defense with three tackles for loss.
North Central opens CCIW play next Saturday at Elmhurst College (1-2). Kickoff at Langhorst Field is scheduled for 2 p.m.