In a game that featured nearly 600 passing yards, it was the running game which turned the tide for the North Central College football team on Saturday, as the Cardinals vanquished the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, 52-24, at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium to advance to the national quarterfinals for the second time in their history.
Fourth-ranked North Central (12-0) moves on to the round of eight for the first time since 2010 and will face sixth-ranked Bethel University (Minn.) in the quarterfinals.
"Those are two good teams right there," said the Cardinals' head coach, John Thorne. "It really makes it tough for both defenses because both offenses force you to defend the whole field. It was a very, very exciting game. The offense did some great things, and the defense did a lot of great things. We're very excited to be playing a third-round game."
The Cardinals enjoyed a breakout performance from junior running back Ryan Kent, who eluded the Pioneers' defense all day long en route to a career-high 257 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries. He tied North Central's single-game record for touchdowns and came just three yards short of the school record of 260 yards set by Jeremy Walsh in 2001 and tied by Steve Holden in 2004. Kent's efforts helped the Cardinals turn in a total of 596 offensive yards, their most ever in a postseason contest.
"I think the offensive line did a great job," Kent said. "I think you could drive trucks through some of those holes. We usually go by committee, because we have a lot of great backs, so I was lucky to get the opportunities that I had."
North Central needed only three plays to get into the end zone for the first time, as senior receiver Chad O'Kane got behind the Platteville defense and hauled in a pass from Spencer Stanek. O'Kane raced to the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown, the fourth-longest passing play in the program's history.
The Pioneers (10-2) threatened to tie the score on their first possession, but linebacker Jason Callahan intercepted a pass in the Cardinals' end zone to thwart the visitors' progress.
"That was a huge interception," Thorne said. "That gave us an awful lot of momentum that really continued throughout the rest of the game."
The ensuing North Central drive came to an end on a lost fumble in Pioneer territory, but North Central's defense forced a punt three plays later. Taking over at their own 44-yard line, the hosts got their next drive started with a 33-yard pass toPeter Sorenson, and two plays later, Kent scored his first touchdown on a 14-yard scamper to double North Central's lead to 14-0 with 6:16 still to play in the opening period.
Platteville got on the board with a 37-yard field goal by Zach Litchfield on the next possession, but the Cardinals countered with a 24-yard TD run from Kent to boost their advantage to 21-3 just before the end of the first quarter. The Pioneers found the end zone twice in the second period, but both scores were promptly answered. A three-yard TD run by UWP running back Lee Vlasak was countered after just three plays, as Kent ran up the middle for a 60-yard score with 8:46 before halftime.
Pioneer quarterback John Kelly's first scoring pass of the day, a 20-yard throw to Ryley Bailey, cut the visitors' deficit to 28-17 with 5:33 left in the half, but Stanek engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive which ate up more than five minutes and culminated in seven-yard TD pass to O'Kane with just 30 seconds on the clock. The Cardinals headed into halftime with a 35-17 advantage, having rolled up 426 yards of total offense.
North Central turned in the first score of the second half, getting a first down on fourth-and-two on Stanek's three-yard shovel pass to Matt Randolph before a 27-yard TD run by Kent. Kelly got the Pioneers into the end zone on the next drive, throwing an eight-yard scoring strike to Bailey with 6:47 on the third-quarter clock.
The Cardinals put together their longest drive of the afternoon shortly after the start of the fourth period, controlling the ball for over seven minutes in a 13-play, 71-yard drive which ended with a 25-yard field goal by Nick Dace. After halting Platteville on fourth down near midfield on the next drive, North Central posted the day's final touchdown on a four-yard pass to O'Kane with 2:46 to play.
North Central scored on eight of its 10 possessions in the game, including a string of five straight touchdown drives. The Cardinals set single-season school records for touchdowns (76) and points (558).
Stanek completed 19 of 24 passes for 274 yards, giving him 3,048 for the season to make him the second Cardinal quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a single campaign. O'Kane hauled in seven passes for a career-high 132 yards and tied North Central's single-game record with three TD receptions, while Kent, who now owns 1,013 rushing yards this sseason, gives the Cardinals a 1,000-yard rusher for the eighth time.
Defensive ends Alex Tripp and John Focosi made regular trips to the Pioneers' backfield, evenly splitting North Central's five quarterback sacks. Tripp finished with 3 1/2 tackles for loss and tied Nick Slezak for the team lead in total tackles (10), while Shane Dierking finished with nine tackles and a career-best four pass breakups.
"It just came down to us digging our heels in and slowing them down," Tripp said. "We just put a stop to what they wanted to do. It wound up working pretty well."
Saturday's game will kickoff at noon. The site of the game will be determined Sunday by the NCAA Division III Football Committee.