Pulling back the curtain on its playoff run with a powerful performance, the North Central College football team opened the NCAA Division III Championship on Saturday with a 63-7 conquest of the Albion College (Mich.) Britons at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The fourth-ranked Cardinals (11-0) move on to next week's second round, which features a home game against the seventh-ranked University of Wisconsin-Platteville (10-1). The Pioneers defeated Concordia University Wisconsin, 54-20, in their first-round contest.
"That's maybe as good as we've played," said North Central head coach John Thorne, "but we know we're going to be tested a whole lot more next week. We've got a whole lot of work to do to get ready for next week's game, but I'm very proud of these guys."
North Central's 557 yards of total offense gave it 5,585 for the season, establishing a new single-season school record. The Cardinals' 506 points this season are just 18 short of the all-time program best.
"We've got a great group of guys up front on the line, and our position players are just outstanding," said senior quarterback Spencer Stanek. "It really helps when you have those kinds of guys to play with, so I'm just really proud of everyone right now."
The hosts' first scoring opportunity was turned away, as the Britons (8-3) stopped a fourth-down conversion attempt on their own three-yard line. The Cardinals, however, got a short field to work with soon thereafter when Alex Tripp intercepted a pass to give North Central the ball back at the 50. Five plays later, Stanek delivered a six-yard touchdown pass to Peter Sorenson, nudging the home team in front, 7-0, with 7:13 on the first-quarter clock. The Cardinals' next drive was highlighted by a 39-yard run from Zack Pattat and a 25-yard run by Stanek beforeRyan Kent scored on a one-yard run to double the lead to 14-0.
North Central's defensive and special-teams units made their presence felt in the second period. John Focosi sacked Albion quarterback Dominic Bona on third down early in the quarter and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Tripp. Stanek passed to Chad O'Kane for a 22-yard touchdown five plays later. Tripp andBrian Wilson came through with a sack on third down to force a punt on the next drive, and the kick was blocked by Kevin Schroeder. Jason Callahan collected the ball and raced 39 yards for the score, extending the lead to 28-0.
"Our defensive tackles were key in not giving (Bona) chances to escape underneath, and our coverage gave us time to work into our moves and give as much pressure as we did today," said Tripp. "It all came together pretty well."
Schroeder got a hand on a punt on the Britons' next drive as well, and Stanek hitRyne Rezac for a 49-yard TD pass on the next play. The final score of the opening half came with 1:31 to play. After four straight running plays, Stanek found Sorenson for 22-yard score and a 42-0 halftime advantage.
North Central's defense came up big again early in the third period, as Kevin Nalefski intercepted a pass and scored on a 39-yard return. Following an Albion punt, a six-play, 47-yard drive was capped off by Matt Randolph's two-yard TD run. Randolph ran the ball on five of the six plays in the possession, gaining 40 yards.
The Cardinals' Michael Weidner recovered a mishandled Albion punt return at the Britons' 32-yard line to spark the hosts' final scoring drive of the day. North Central ran seven running plays, five of which went to Denzel Thompson, and scored on his eight-yard run with 6:10 to play. Albion's final possession resulted in its lone score, as Bona ran for a two-yard TD with 2:34 to play.
North Central gained a season-high 372 rushing yards, led by Zack Pattat's 103 yards on just four carries, while Kent gained 81 yards on 14 attempts. Stanek completed 11 of 17 passes for 185 yards while also running five times for 60 yards, and Rezac (70 yards) and O'Kane (68) each caught four passes.
The Cardinals' defense, which forced four turnovers and limited Albion to 258 yards, got eight tackles each from Wilson and Tripp. Weidner also blocked a punt in the game. North Central kicker Nick Dace connected on nine extra-point attempts, giving him 62 on the season to break his own single-season school record.
North Central kicks off against UW-Platteville at noon on Saturday.