Adversity came from all sides as the North Central College football team opened its 10th postseason appearance on Saturday, but the Cardinals summoned their courage, made the necessary adjustments and found a way to prevail, defeating sixth-ranked Saint John's University, 17-7, in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals (10-1) not only faced stiff winds and steady rain which turned to snow during the afternoon, but also took the field without College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) Offensive Player of the Year Austin Breunig, who was sidelined with an injury earlier in the week. In Breunig's absence, North Central turned to sophomore running back Dominick Muoghalu, who rushed for 180 yards and a touchdown on a school record-tying 40 carries, while the Cardinals' defense limited the Johnnies to 263 total yards, just over half their season average. North Central has won its first round-game the last nine times it has appeared in the Division III postseason.
"This was a fantastic football game," said North Central head coach Jeff Thorne. "We had some really adverse conditions, but it's November in Illinois. Our defense was absolutely phenomenal, and so was theirs. I thought our offensive line was tremendous, and (Muoghalu) was a beast. We were not at all surprised with what happened today with Dom. He runs hard, he runs with passion, and he cares about his teammates. I'm really proud of our effort today."
Saint John's (9-2) had the game's first scoring opportunity, bringing kicker Zach Barwick on for a 44-yard field goal attempt, but the kick sailed wide. The Cardinals then handed the ball to Muoghalu seven times in a 12-play, 73-yard drive, including a 16-yard run up the middle for the game's first touchdown, his 12th of the season.
"I told my teammates the whole week, 'I'm going to do everything I can to get us this win," Muoghalu said. "Them having faith in me made me have more faith in myself and it brought out the true confidence in me. When people rely on me and I can rely on them and we have that kind of team camaraderie, it's really hard not to put in 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time. With them having my back, the sky's the limit. We can do anything."
The Johnnies gave themselves a short-field opportunity in the second period when Leonard Gutierrez intercepted a pass that had been tipped at the line of scrimmage, giving the visitors the ball at the North Central 25-yard line midway through the second quarter. Cardinal defensive end Billy Douds, however, came up big on the next play, sacking Saint John's quarterback Trevor Erdmann and forcing a fumble which was recovered by Matt Taylor. North Central finished the day with four quarterback sacks, as Douds and Tommy Sora each recorded two.
"We thought the weather played into our hands as a defensive line," Douds said. "It was just a great team effort, we all came together and played great."
The first Saint John's drive of the second half looked to have some promise, as tailback Dusty Krueger put the Johnnies in North Central territory with a 51-yard run on the first play. The drive cme to an end on fourth-down, however, as Sora tackled Krueger for a five-yard loss on a pass play. Muoghalu ran the ball eight straight times for 52 yards on the ensuing drive and the Cardinals got a 27-yard field goal from Liam Crotty to boost the lead to 10-0 with 6:31 left in the third quarter. Crotty now has 13 made field goals this season, tying the North Central all-time record.
Taking over following a Saint John's punt at their own 27, the Cardinals took 6:43 off the clock early in the fourth quarter with a 10-play, 73-yard trek, including a 31-yard third-down pass from Broc Rutter to Alex Rose which stood as North Central's longest play of the day. Rutter fired an eight-yard TD pass to Andrew Kamienski, giving the hosts a 17-0 advantage with 6:54 left.
Erdmann got the Johnnies into the end zone for their lone score just two plays later, hitting Evan Clark for a 38-yard gain before finding Dan Harrington in the back of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. Saint John's next possession, however, resulted in another missed field goal, which wound up sealing the win for the Cardinals.
Sora led the North Central defense with eight tackles (six solo), while Matt Sutherland made seven stops and Douds added six.
"All week, we knew we had to stop their running game," Sora said. "Once we knew that the weather was not going to be an ideal scenario for passing the ball, we knew they were going to try and run the ball on us. We knew we had to shut it down early, take it away from them, and make them as much of a one-dimensional team as we could."
The Cardinals advance to the second round of the championship next Saturday, facing the third-ranked University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a 63-0 first-round winner over Lakeland University. Kickoff at Titan Stadium is scheduled for 12:00 noon.