Playing to avenge a College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) loss for the first time in three years, the North Central College football team played with a champion's resolve on Saturday at Wheaton College, breaking open a close game with another strong second half and defeating the Thunder, 35-16, to clinch at least a share of the Cardinals' eighth straight CCIW title.
The fourth-ranked Cardinals (9-0, 6-0 CCIW) regained the Little Brass Bell, the traveling trophy between the two teams, which Wheaton had owned since a 35-21 victory in Naperville last season. North Central also assured itself of the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Football Championship.
"We had a lot of guys play with a lot of courage," said North Central head coachJohn Thorne, who recorded his sixth win over the Thunder. "We had a lot of guys play through pain and come through for us in the second half."
Wheaton (7-2, 4-2) dominated the battle for time of possession for most of the first half, keeping its offense on the field for more than 20 of the 30 minutes of game time. The Thunder opened the scoring in the first period as quarterback Jordan Roberts eluded the North Central pass rush and scrambled 33 yards to the end zone. He capped off a nine-play, 80-yard drive which ate up more than five minutes. Wheaton's extra-point kick was unsuccessful, leaving the score at 6-0 with 3:48 left in the opening period.
"Our biggest adjustment was for our defensive linemen to realize just how quick their quarterback really was," Thorne said. "He's very slippery, so we just tried to help them adjust their angles.
"They had a great game plan, and their running back did a fabulous job. He's hard to tackle, so we tried to convince the guys to tackle him a little lower, and we ran a few more blitzes."
The Cardinals countered with their first score on the next drive. A 26-yard pass from Spencer Stanek to Peter Sorenson got North Central into the Thunder's half of the field, and a 16-yard run by Ryan Kent left the visitors just six yards from the goal line. Stanek found Chad O'Kane, who had been on crutches as late as Thursday following last week's win over Illinois Wesleyan University, for a touchdown pass on the next play and put the Cardinals in front, 7-6.
"I told Coach Thorne on Monday I was playing," O'Kane said. "I didn't feel a thing. I felt great, just like I expected."
Wheaton ran more than five minutes off the clock early in the second quarter before a missed field goal. Taking over on their own 27-yard line, the Cardinals marched 73 yards in nine plays, including a three-yard run by Kent on fourth down. Stanek finished the drive by firing an 18-yard pass to A.J. Thomas and a 19-yarder to Peter Sorenson to put North Central on the three-yard line before lofting a pass to the left corner of the end zone, again to Sorenson, for a 14-6 lead with five minutes left before halftime.
The Thunder narrowed the gap to a single point just before the break. Facing fourth down-and-one on the North Central 23, Wheaton opted to go for the conversion and wound up getting a touchdown run by tailback Jesse Geary with 49 seconds to go.
Taking the field for the first possession of the second half, the Cardinals caught a break when a Wheaton interception was nullified by a penalty. Stanek made use of the second chance, hitting Ryan Szudarski for 16 yards on third down before finding Sorenson on a crossing route for a 36-yard touchdown. The Cardinals owned a 21-13 advantage with 12:39 left in the third period.
North Central blocked a punt on the ensuing possession, but the Thunder recovered the ball to retain possession. Three plays later, however, the Cardinals forced another punt and took possession on their own 39-yard line. Stanek was 3 for 3 passing in a seven-play, 61-yard drive, fooling the Wheaton defense on a pump fake and finding a wide-open O'Kane for a 12-yard TD with 3:57 left in the third quarter.
The Thunder got a 34-yard field goal from kicker Sam Cote with 9:24 to play in the contest, and North Central responded by sealing the win with the longest possession of the afternoon. The Cardinals marched 75 yards in 16 plays, eating up nearly eight minutes of game time.
The Cardinals converted three third downs on the drive, as Ryan Kent ran six yards on an option play and Stanek completed a 10-yard pass to O'Kane before Stanek, facing a third down-and-15, ran up the middle of the field on a quarterback draw to move the sticks once again. With a fourth down-and-seven on the Wheaton 19-yard line, Stanek looked to Sorenson once again, who hauled in his third TD pass of the day with 1:31 left to put the game out of reach.
"I told the guys we just needed to sustain a really long drive," said Stanek. "We had to run some time off the clock because we knew they had a very good offense. The seniors on the offense just buckled down and made some plays."
Wheaton's final possession ended when Shane Dierking intercepted Roberts' pass near midfield. It was the seventh interception of the season for Dierking, who tied North Central's record with 15 career picks.
"It feels great (to tie the record)," he said. "It's been a lot of pressure, and people keep talking about it, so to get that monkey off my back feels pretty good."
After getting outgained in the first half, the Cardinals owned a 224-73 advantage in total yards after the intermission to finish with a 379-290 edge for the game.
"They were running the ball on us early," Dierking said. "We just had to play more physical football. They were taking it to us at the line, and Roberts was creating plays with his feet, which he does very well. We went to straight man coverage across the board so the linebackers could play the run more."
Stanek completed 21 of 29 passes for 242 yards and tied a single-game best with five touchdowns while running six times for 42 yards. O'Kane caught six passes for 46 yards and Sorenson made five grabs for 103, while Ryan Kent gained 97 yards on 20 rushing attempts. North Central's offensive line was stout all afternoon, permitting Wheaton to record just one tackle for loss.
Nick Slezak led the Cardinals' defense with 12 tackles and three tackles for loss, while John Focosi recorded two quarterback sacks. North Central has limited each of its CCIW opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense.
Geary gained 132 yards on 20 carries for Wheaton, while Roberts ran 17 times for 48 yards and completed 8 of 16 passes for 74 yards. Adam Dansdill was the Thunder's top tackler with 14 stops.
The Cardinals close out the regular season by hosting Augustana College (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m., with Senior Day festivities to be observed prior to the game.