|Broc Rutter and the North Central Cardinals have been firing on all cylinders all season, other than a loss to No. 3 Wheaton.
Photo by Matthew McClure, d3photography.com
By Brian Lester
Imagine being the fifth-ranked team in team in the nation and sweating out the selection show because there is no guarantee an NCAA postseason berth is in the cards.
North Central found itself in that very spot Sunday afternoon. The team gathered together waiting to find out if, rather than when its name would be called.
Senior quarterback Broc Rutter, the three-time College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Player of the Year, will tell you it wasn’t the most fun situation to be in.
“It was a stressful day for our team,” Rutter said. “We’ve never been in that position before in my four years here.”
- Full first-round scoreboard
- Updated playoff bracket
- Follow the first round on the Bracket Blitz
- First-round wrapups: Wheaton bracket | UMHB | Mount Union | Salisbury
- Playoff team capsules: UMHB bracket | Mount Union | Salisbury | Wheaton
- Our playoff picks, surprises, disappointments
- Golden Bears look to take next step
- North Central: In playoff mode since October
Cardinals coach Jeff Thorne called the moments leading up to the bracket reveal nerve-wracking. He felt his team was good enough to be there, that this was a special group, but that didn’t mean the selection committee had the same thought in mind.
“Right away the first bracket comes out and three Pool C teams are in it, and that made it even more nerve-wracking because there were only two teams left,” Thorne said. “So when our name was called, there was an eruption.
"I didn’t hear anything after that it was so loud. The guys were pretty excited.”
Rutter was thrilled and couldn’t hold back his excitement as he celebrated the special moment of knowing this 2019 football season for the Cardinals still had a heartbeat.
He said it gives the team a new sense of hunger and new sense of focus because of how close they were to not making it. North Central opens the postseason against Wabash on Saturday.
“It was a huge relief. Everyone is excited to be in,” Rutter said. “We realize how quickly it can be taken away and we need to take advantage of this opportunity.”
And had that opportunity not been granted?
“It would have been a really tough pill to swallow to not see this group have a chance to be in the playoffs,” Thorne said.
But in many ways, the playoffs started for the Cardinals in early October after they suffered a 35-21 loss to Wheaton. North Central led three different times in that game, including at 21-14 with under five minutes to play in the third quarter. The Cardinals just didn’t do enough to finish.
“They outplayed us in the fourth quarter. They got to our quarterback and we made some mistakes on defense,” Thorne said. “We walked away from that game knowing our backs are against the wall and there is no room for error. We’ve really been playing playoff football since then. The guys have done a great job of staying focused and it’s no different this week.”
Six consecutive wins have followed, all in convincing fashion.
The Cardinals (9-1) got the streak going with a 42-14 win over Augustana and closed the regular season with a 59-32 victory over Millikin. In all six wins, the Cardinals have scored at least 42 points, hitting a high of 82 in an 82-7 win over Elmhurst in Week 9.
Rutter said the team has simply been playing on another level since stumbling against Wheaton.
“We’ve been playing with a new sense of urgency. ... It’s just been the little things. Everyone has put in the work to get better.”
- North Central quarterback Broc Rutter
“We had to be perfect and we’ve gotten better and better every day,” Rutter said. “We’ve been playing with a new sense of urgency. I wouldn’t say we made wholesale changes because we were in a position to win that game. It’s just been the little things. Everyone has put in the work to get better.”
Rutter has been instrumental in that success. Only the second quarterback in conference history to be a three-time player of the year, the senior has thrown for 3,120 yards and 41 touchdowns while getting picked off just twice.
Rutter has plenty of targets. Five receivers have caught at least 10 passes, led by Andrew Kamienski, who has 85 catches for 1,269 yards and 20 touchdown receptions.
And he has an offensive line in front of him that includes the best offensive lineman in the league in Sharmore Clarke.
“We have so many weapons. Different guys step up every week,” Rutter said. “The O-line is doing a great job of protecting me and our coaching staff does a great job of putting us in a position to succeed. I tell people all the time that my job is easy. I just have to get the ball in my guys’ hands.”
Ethan Greenfield leads a dangerous running attack, churning out 1,308 yards and 17 touchdowns for one of the nation’s best offenses.
“He’s a very good running back,” Thorne said. “He’s durable and hard to tackle. He forces defenses to account for more than just Broc.”
The defense has been solid as well, allowing more than 14 points just once during its win streak. Three opponents were held to single digits.
“We’ve done a great job of bottling up people’s running games for the most part, and save the Wheaton game, we’ve done a good job of taking away the big plays,” Thorne said. “We have a solid group of guys on our defense. We play great as a unit and rally to the ball.”
North Central is taking on a Wabash team that comes in at 7-3 on the year. The Little Giants are putting up 400 yards per game and allowing 334.
“Wabash has a very good football team,” Thorne said. “They have an exceptional running game and a dynamic quarterback. They play solid football. But we won’t change anything. We have to figure out how to attack their offense and defense and just go through our normal routine in practice this week.”
All the while keeping the same mindset it has been playing with since the loss to Wheaton.
“We’ve been playing desperate since Week 4, and it’s no different now,” Thorne said. “If we lose, we are done. We have to carry that same mindset into Saturday and hope it’s at an even higher level of awareness.”
All Rutter wanted on a stressful selection Sunday was the chance to keep playing, the chance to prove just how good of a team North Central is. The Cardinals have that chance and are determined to make the most of it.
“Everyone is 0-0 again and we have to go out and be as ready as we can be,” Rutter said. “We are happy to be in it and we want to prove how good we think we are. It’s a huge opportunity for us, especially for us seniors, and we want to play for as long as we can.”