Naperville, Ill. – The Wheaton football team (11-1) defeated North Central 31-14 on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. Today's win marked the third consecutive season that the Wheaton football program has won at least 11 games, following 11-1 campaigns in 2015 an 2014. The three-year run marks only the second time in program history that Wheaton has posted double-digit win totals for three consecutive years, and the first time that the three-year streak has consisted completely of 11 or more wins.
Wheaton advances to the quarterfinal round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and the third time in program history. The Thunder football program is 1-1 all-time in the quarterfinal round.The Thunder will take on Mary Hardin-Baylor in the quarterfinals next Saturday at noon (CST).
Today's victory against the Cardinals (11-1) marked the second meeting of the year between the two CCIW rivals. The playoff matchup marked only the second time in CCIW history that two schools from the league played each other in the Division III playoffs; the other occasion came in 1989.
Wheaton had 359 yard of offense against the Cardinals today as the Thunder ran for 193 yards and passed for 166 yards. North Central put up 308 yards of total offense, with 222 passing yards and 86 yards on the ground.
Thunder running back Sola Olateju carried the ball 29 times for 160 yards on Saturday, with two trips into the end zone. Quarterback Andrew Bowers was 16-of-29 through the air, with 166 passing yards and two touchdown tosses. The senior also ran for 34 yards on nine carries. Chase White caught five passes for 77 yards with a pair of touchdown receptions. Thunder receiver Trey Hanley tallied five receptions for 57 yards.
Thunder defensive back Tyler Sigler recorded seven total tackles to lead the Thunder defense. Eric Stevenson and Caleb Ashby each recorded six total tackles. Ashby recorded one of Wheaton's six sacks in the game. Austin Hoover and Chase Greenlee each registered two sacks and Noah Spielman added a sack for the guests.
North Central running back Austin Breunig ran for 115 yards on 13 carries. Quarterback Broc Rutter completed 20 of his 25 passing attempts for 222 yards. Ryan Kuhl led the Cardinals' receivers with six catches for 83 yards. Justin Stuursma had a team-high nine total tackles for the North Central defense, adding 1-1/2 tackles for lost yardage (-4 yards).
North Central received the opening kickoff, the Cardinals pushed the ball to the Thunder 36-yard line, but a Caleb Ashby sack on fourth down turned the ball over to Wheaton. The Cardinals tipped Wheaton's pass on the first play of the opening Thunder drive to give the hosts the ball. The Cardinals' drive that followed was ended by sacks from Hoover and Spielman. The drives that followed for each team stalled. North Central started a drive at the Thunder 48-yard line with 1:04 left in the first quarter. Stevenson picked off a NCC pass at the Wheaton three-yard line and returned it 35 yards to the guests' 38-yard line. The Thunder drive that followed the interception stalled, as did the ensuing North Central drive.
The Thunder started a drive with 11:39 remaining in the second quarter and pair of the Thunder first downs moved Wheaton into Cardinal territory. However, the Wheaton drive stalled forcing the Thunder to punt. The Cardinals put together a lengthy drive of 87 yards midway through the second quarter. The drive culminated with a two-yard touchdown run by Rutter and was followed by a PAT to give North Central a 7-0 lead with 6:03 remaining in the second quarter. Wheaton punted to conclude the drive that followed.
Thunder cornerback Marcus Smith recovered Breunig's fumble at the Wheaton 29-yard line to thwart the NCC scoring opportunity on the ensuing drive. The Thunder drive that followed, started with 3:11 left in the second quarter and Wheaton methodically moved the ball down the field on a nine-play drive of 84 yards. The drive ended on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Bowers to White. White's touchdown tied the contest at 7-7 with 17-second remaining in the first half. The matchup was tied 7-7 at halftime.
Wheaton head coach Mike Swider noted of the touchdown to close out the first half, "That touchdown was huge, because we knew we had the opening kickoff for the second half. You always like going into the locker room at halftime charged up a little bit."
Wheaton's Stone Watson took the opening kickoff of the second half and returned it 17 yards to the Thunder 36-yard line. The guests compiled a 64-yard drive that lasted eight plays and concluded with a seven-yard touchdown pass from Bowers to White. The touchdown was setup by a strong performance from Olateju as he ran for 43 yards on five carries in the drive. White's touchdown gave the Thunder a 14-7 lead with 10:53 remaining in the third quarter. The Cardinals responded on the following drive as Rutter scored on six-play touchdown run to cap an 11-play drive of 79 yards. Rutter's touchdown tied the contest at 14-14 with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter.
Wheaton followed Rutter's touchdown with a lengthy 13-play drive of 51 yards. The Thunder offense setup kicker Stefan Knoerr for a 32-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights to give Wheaton a 17-14 lead with 14:06 remaining in the game. The Wheaton defense forced a punt on the North Central drive that followed as Wheaton started a drive at its own 30-yard line with 11:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. Wheaton was at its own 39-yard line when Bowers connected with White for a 29-yard pass to put the Thunder at the Cardinals' 39-yard line. Olateju reached the end zone four plays later on a 15-yard touchdown run to increase Wheaton's lead to 24-14 with 7:38 left in the game.