Taking part in its biggest game of 2013 thus far, the North Central College football team rose to the occasion when the lights were brightest on Saturday, breaking open a close game with an authoritative fourth-quarter surge and posting a 46-17 victory over College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) rival Illinois Wesleyan University at Tucci Stadium.
The fourth-ranked Cardinals (8-0, 5-0 CCIW) were pitted against a nationally-ranked opponent for the first time this season, as IWU came into the game ranked 12th by the American Football Coaches Association and 13th by D3football.com. North Central led nearly the whole afternoon and scored the final 24 points, including three touchdowns in a six-minute stretch of the fourth period.
The Cardinals' offense took the field first and marched 85 yards in 13 plays to open the scoring. Spencer Stanek completed 6 of 7 passes on the drive, including a 23-yard toss to Peter Sorenson which left the visitors just one yard from the end zone. Zack Pattat ran for the score on the next play, spotting North Central an early 7-0 lead. The Titans (7-1, 4-1) answered with a touchdown on their first drive as well, as quarterback Rob Gallik completed three straight passes for 57 yards before handing off to tailback Devonte Jones for a four-yard TD run with 7:47 on the first-quarter clock.
Stanek responded by engineering another 85-yard touchdown drive, lasting 16 plays, completing 7 of 8 passes along the way. His five-yard TD completion to Sorenson with just nine seconds left in the opening period put North Central ahead once again, 14-7.
The Cardinals recovered their own onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, but a holding penalty derailed their next drive and the punt team came on for the first time. Kevin Looff's kick pinned IWU on its own six-yard line, and the Cardinals came with defensive pressure on the next play to harass Gallik into a penalty for intentional grounding. As the penalty occurred in the end zone, North Central was awarded a safety to boost its lead to 16-7. The Cardinals' next drive resulted in a 26-yard field goal by Nick Dace, giving the guests a 19-7 edge with 10:27 left in the first half.
After the Cardinals' defense stuffed a fourth-down conversion attempt at the North Central 32-yard line, IWU got another chance after recovering a fumble on the following play. Passes by Gallik accounted for all four drives on the next play, including a 10-yard TD pass to Tate Musselman, as the Titans narrowed the gap to 19-14 with 1:39 before halftime. Stanek turned out to have just enough time to get the Cardinals down the field for another score, completing 5 of 6 passes for 50 yards and setting up a 36-yard field goal from Dace as the horn sounded.
The teams traded field goals to start the third quarter, as a 26-yarder by IWU's Michael Kelley was countered by a 32-yarder from Dace. North Central opened its game-winning stretch drive after taking over near midfield following a Titan punt with 9:35 to play. Ryan Kent broke loose for a 36-yard run to get the Cardinals to the one-yard line, and two plays later, Stanek found Sorenson for a four-yard scoring strike to extend the lead to 32-17.
The Cardinals' defense began the process of slamming the door when Trey Hartema intercepted a pass on the following IWU possession and returned it 34 yards to the Titans' 19. Four plays later, Stanek threw an eight-yard TD pass toRyan Szudarski for a 39-17 advantage with 3:44 left.
Two plays into the hosts' next drive, Shane Dierking stepped in front of another pass to record his team-leading sixth interception of the season at the Cardinals' 48-yard line. Kent came up big once again, taking off for a 45-yard run, before scoring on a one-yard plunge with under a minute to play.
North Central owned a 527-283 advantage in total yards, limiting the Titans to 36 rushing yards. Stanek completed 32 of 45 passes for 337 yards, finishing just one completion short of the Cardinals' single-game record. Kent ran 20 times for a season-high 143 yards, while Chad O'Kane caught eight passes for 104 yards and Sorenson gained 77 yards on seven catches. Dierking, who is now just one interception short of the Cardinals' career record of 15, led North Central with 11 tackles, while Adam Szudarski totaled three tackles for loss.
Gallik completed 26 of 43 passes for 247 yards for the Titans, throwing seven times to Alex Garvey for 70 yards. Connor Klein made 12 tackles and Chris Simms made 11 stops for IWU.
North Central has now beaten the Titans in 10 of the last 11 meetings, including the last four in a row by an aggregate score of 152-24.
The Cardinals travel to face 19th-ranked Wheaton College (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday at McCully Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m.