A sloppy first half for the North Central College football team was washed away on Saturday, as the Cardinals used a lengthy weather delay to its advantage and came out firing on all cylinders in the second half to defeat Elmhurst College, 31-14, at Langhorst Field.
Fourth-ranked North Central (4-0, 1-0 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin) entered the halftime break deadlocked in a 14-14 tie after committing nine penalties and two turnovers. Immediately after the second-half kickoff, the stadium was cleared due to heavy rain and lightning, and more than 90 minutes elapsed before the teams were permitted to return to the field.
The Cardinals seized control of the contest soon thereafter, scoring two touchdowns in a span of less than two minutes and limiting Elmhurst to just 44 total yards and one first down the rest of the way. The victory is North Central's 15th straight over the Bluejays, including all 12 encounters under the tutelage of head coach John Thorne.
After punting away the game's first possession, the Cardinals stuffed a fourth-down conversion attempt near midfield. Elmhurst, however, got the ball back one play later, as Spencer Stanek's pass was tipped before falling into the hands of Bluejay linebacker George DeMaria. The hosts were able to set up a 30-yard field goal attempt, but the kick sailed wide.
Taking over at its own 20, North Central embarked on its first scoring drive of the day. Stanek completed five straight passes, including three to Ryne Rezac, before calling his own number on a seven-yard option run for the game's first touchdown. Elmhurst countered with an 80-yard drive of its own in the second period, highlighted by a 41-yard run by tailback Josh Williams. Backed up to its own one-yard line, the Cardinal defense held its ground until fourth down, when Williams extended a play to the left sideline and eluded the North Central pressure for a two-yard TD run.
The Bluejays (1-4, 0-1) followed by attempting an onside kick, but were flagged for touching the ball before it had traveled 10 yards. North Central wound up taking possession at the Elmhurst 44, and Stanek got the Cardinals back into the end zone after three passes. He found Chad O'Kane in the end zone near the left sideline with 3:34 on the clock, restoring the visitors' lead to 14-7.
North Central made one last attempt to score before halftime, driving just past midfield before a costly error. An errant snap from center was tipped into the air, then snagged by Bluejay safety Stephen Ritter, who raced 47 yards to the end zone to tie the score with just 12 seconds on the clock.
Right after the Cardinals' second-half kickoff to Elmhurst, the skies opened up and the stadium was evacuated. After resuming play, North Central promptly forced a punt and began the 14-play, 68-yard drive which would give it the lead for good.Oshayne Brown kept the drive alive with a three-yard run on fourth down, then later rambled 12 yards to leave the Cardinals just a yard from the goal line. Stanek was sacked for a six-yard loss on the next play, but two plays later lofted a seven-yard TD pass to Peter Sorenson.
Cardinal safety Shane Dierking stepped up on the next series and intercepted a third-down pass, returning it 29 yards to the Elmhurst 16. Stanek fired his third scoring pass on the next play, a 16-yard strike to Rezac, and gave North Central a 28-14 cushion with 6:24 left in the third quarter.
Dierking set up the final score of the day with his second interception, which he returned 21 yards to the Elmhurst 26. Five plays later, kicker Nick Dace came on to convert a 25-yard field goal attempt, making him the first in North Central history to connect on 40 career field goals. Dierking, meanwhile, now has 12 career interceptions, tying him with Timm Bellazzini '07 and Tyler Venier '09 for third all-time.
The Cardinals wound up totaling 412 yards of offense, while the defense established a season best by limiting Elmhurst to 205. The Bluejays' 27 passing yards are the fifth-fewest recorded by a North Central opponent.
Stanek completed 16 of 27 passes for 201 yards, throwing seven times to Sorenson for 106. Sorenson now has 34 receptions after four games, more than he had all of last season. Ryan Kent ran for a game-high 98 yards on 14 carries, while Brown gained a career-high 76 yards on 13 rushes.
Nick Slezak led North Central in tackles for the fourth straight game (12), also recording three tackles for loss, while Nick Samuelson made seven stops and Dierking and Brian Wilson each had six.
Williams and quarterback Logan Stelzriede shared Elmhurst's rushing lead with 72 yards each. Charlie Roberts led the Bluejay defense with 13 tackles, three tackles for loss and two quarterback sacks.
The Cardinals return home Saturday, hosting Millikin University (1-4, 0-1) at 6 p.m. The Big Blue opened CCIW play with a 35-21 loss to Illinois Wesleyan University.