The North Central College football team walked off the field at Bethel University feeling a numbness comprised of equal parts frostbite and euphoria Saturday, fighting its way past sub-zero temperatures and a sturdy opponent to post a 41-17 victory over the Royals in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III Football Championship at Royal Stadium.
The win advances the Cardinals (13-0) to the national semifinals for the first time, where they will face the top-ranked University of Mount Union Purple Raiders for the opportunity to advance to the national championship game.
"I was very proud of the way our guys played today," said North Central head coachJohn Thorne. "Bethel is a wonderful teaem and they're very well-coached so we knew it would be a hard-fought game.
"The weather and the field and all that kind of stuff made it difficult, but it's also going to turn into a day that both teams are going to remember forever. It was a very interesting day, a lot of fun, and we're very excited to have the chance to move on."
On a day when the temperature stayed in the negative digits and a natural-grass field worn down by a long season was particularly unforgiving, North Central entered the game prepared to tackle the elements as well as its opponent.
"The coaches prepared us to stay warm," said senior defensive back Shane Dierking, who became the Cardinals' all-time leader in interceptions (16) while also recovering a fumble and recording a team-high 10 tackles to enter North Central's career top 10. "Once the game started, it wasn't that big of a factor. Cutting and breaking was a little difficult, but there are going to be games like that in the playoffs so it was good to see us overcome those things."
The Cardinals were also boosted for the second straight game by the rushing performance of junior Ryan Kent. Carrying the ball a career-high 28 times, Kent gained 109 yards and tied a North Central single-game record with four rushing touchdowns for the second straight week.
"It's all the offensive line and the playcalling," Kent said. "There are huge holes to run through, and when you're running behind a line like that, I can't take too much credit for it.
"I've played in cold games before, but the field was pretty hard. It was like playing on cement. I don't think we were too limited in our ability to make cuts, it was just when you hit the ground there were elbows and knees getting cut open."
The Cardinals were forced to punt away their first possession, and Bethel (12-1) wound up posting the game's first score on Andrew O'Reilly's 31-yard field goal with 7:32 left in the first quarter. North Central, however, responded right away with a three-play, 75-yard drive that saw quarterback Spencer Stanek fire a 38-yard pass to Ryne Rezac before a 34-yard screen pass to Chad O'Kane that scored the day's first touchdown.
Bethel's next drive resulted in the first of what would become five turnovers for the hosts, as quarterback Tom Keefe's fumble was recovered by the Cardinals' Nick Samuelson at the Royals' 39-yard line. North Central called five straight running plays, scoring on Kent's one-yard run to go up, 14-3, with 3:57 still to play in the opening frame.
"Whoever wins the turnover battle in the playoffs is going to win the game," Dierking said. "We just had to keep punching at the ball because when it's this cold the ball can come out."
Taking over after a Bethel punt, the Cardinals got down the field in a hurry after a 43-yard pass from Stanek to Peter Sorenson left the visitors just two yards from the end zone. On the first play of the second period, Kent again dove in from a yard out and boosted North Central's lead to 21-3.
The Cardinals had a 31-yard field goal attempt blocked in the second period. Trey Hartema intercepted a pass on the following drive, but North Central came up empty on an attempted fourth-down conversion. Dierking ended a Bethel drive deep in the Cardinals' territory with his record-breaking pick, which tied him for the North Central single-season record (8), but the Cardinals' offense was unable to make any headway before halftime.
The Royals saw the first possession of the second half ended on a fumble at the North Central 10-yard line, but they forced a North Central punt before getting into the end zone for the first time on Jesse Phenow's 12-yard touchdown run. The Cardinals' Jordan Dean, however, put a stop to any gain in momentum by returning the ensuing kickoff 76 yards to the Bethel eight-yard line. Kent scored his third TD, again from one yard away, three plays later to extend the guests' lead to 28-10 with 9:50 left in the third period.
After the Cardinals' defense forced another three-and-out, Stanek completed a pair of passes to Sorenson before firing a 43-yard TD strike to O'Kane. With 6:25 still to play in the third period, North Central owned a commanding 35-10 lead.
"All three phases of the game need to be able to make a play when the play is there," Thorne said. "Our offensive line kept our quarterback clean the whole game, and they've done that the whole year, and our defensive guys just do a great job of getting us the ball in places where we can do something with it."
Dierking recovered a fumble on Bethel's final drive of the third quarter and returned it 28 yards to the Royals' 25. Two plays into the fourth period, Kent's two-yard TD run put the Cardinals' ahead, 41-10.
Bethel put together a 10-play, 61-yard drive and scored on Marshall Klitzke's four-yard run with 10:38 to go, but the Royals' final drive ended on a failed fourth-down conversion in Cardinal territory.
Stanek completed 15 of 27 passes for 249 yards, becoming North Central's all-time single-season leader in completions (245) and passing yards (3,297) while becoming the first Cardinal quarterback to throw at least 40 touchdown passes in a season (41). Sorenson caught seven passes for a game-high 109 yards.
Hartema added nine tackles for the North Central defense, which limited Bethel to its lowest scoring output of the season. Nick Slezak finished with seven tackles, including two tackles for loss, and Dean also recovered a fumble.
Next up for the Cardinals is a Saturday encounter with the defending national champions from Mount Union, who won their semifinal game in a shootout over Wesley College (Del.), 62-59.
"As a senior class, we have a lot of great leaders so we wanted to pave the way for these younger guys to get into new territory," Dierking said. "We want to play the best in the country, so we're ready to keep going."
The site and start time of Saturday's game will be announced Sunday by the NCAA Division III Football Committee.