Cardinals have chip on their shoulder

More news about: North Central (Ill.)
Matt Wenger
Matt Wenger's healthy return gives North Central an elite linebacker it missed for nine games last season.
North Central athletics photo

John Thorne is not campaigning for an expansion of the Division III playoffs. He was simply responding to a question after the reporter picked up on the feeling that the coach was still unhappy about his North Central Cardinals team not being selected for the playoffs last year.

That was not lost on the No. 10-ranked Cardinals, which hammered No. 18 UW-Eau Claire 20-6 in its home opener at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium last week. North Central has captured at least a share of the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin for the last four seasons, including last year.

The Cardinals led Division III in scoring and its previous two seasons had successful runs in the playoffs. All those facts, in the end, weren’t good enough to be named an at-large team at 8-2. Thorne said he knows a huge win over a nationally ranked team from one of the top Division III conferences might not be good enough either if the Cardinals don’t continue to play well.

“It was very disappointing not make it to the playoffs last year,” Thorne said. “We hope this win is a big deal, but we have to take care of business with the rest of the teams in our conference. It was a very exciting atmosphere last Saturday, but the challenge is can we come out and play like this all the time.”

But North Central is playing with a proverbial chip on its shoulder this year. The Cardinals, led by linebacker Matt Wenger, limited the usually tough-running Eau Claire to 13 yards rushing and 186 yards in total offense. Wenger, a preseason All-American last year, suffered a season-ending injuring in the first game of the season last year.

Wenger has bounced back to led North Central in tackles with 27. Wenger and senior Derek Sulo, who also missed nearly all of last season with an injury, have given the Cardinals bite on defense. Sulo has 11 tackles and two pass break ups from his strong safety position.

“Having Matt Wenger back for the fifth year is big for us,” Thorne said. “He and Derek Sulo are playing at an extremely high level. Their leadership have made an impression on the entire team.”

Offensively, North Central lost its all-conference quarterback and two key members of its offensive line and there were a lot of unanswered questions. While some of those questions remain up in the air, the offensive is holding its own.

North Central went with Brad Crackel at quarterback and led the Cardinals to victory. Spencer Stanek started the season at quarterback. Thorne said, though, he is happy, for the most part, with the offense so far.

“We still need to get our timing down on offense,” Thorne said. “We’re still a little bit away with our timing between the quarterback, receivers and linemen. It’s been a fun process to watch.”

Thorne said the offensive line, which has helped the Cardinals rush for over 500 yards in past two games, has been the biggest surprise. He also said the defensive line has stepped up as well.

“Our offensive line is off to a really good start,” Thorne said. “We have about 200 yards rushing against a very good team. Over the last two games, we had only one sack. Everything starts at the line of scrimmage.

“We were most worried about our defensive line and last Saturday they played their best game by far. We had five quarterback sacks and three other times where the quarterback was able to get a one-yard gain. Now, you can’t call those sacks, but he was trying to throw and he was tackled and prevented from passing. We’re rotating eight different guys in to keep their legs fresh.”

But the coach said North Central’s greatest challenges are still ahead with the start of the CCIW schedule. The CCIW features three Top 25 teams with the Cardinals, No. 21 Wheaton and No. 22 Illinois Wesleyan.

That’s not to mention the Cardinals next opponent, Carthage, which passed for over 500 yards in a wild 63-48 shootout between the two teams last year.

“We haven’t played a team that can pass the ball the way they do,” Thorne said. “It’s going to be fun to see how we can slow them down. The CCIW sure makes for fun football.”

That takes us back to the playoff deal. The CCIW, which has had two teams make the playoffs in the past had only one – automatic qualifier Illinois Wesleyan – last year.

“Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, you don’t get the best 32 teams in Division III in the playoffs,” Thorne said. “That’s the rules and that’s the way it is. Every single year, there are a handful of teams ranked in the Top 25 that don’t get a chance to play. We never got a chance to take the field because we didn’t take care of business in two of our games because of injuries to our superstars.”

When asked would he favor expanding the playoffs to 64 teams or even something modest as giving the four No. 1 seeds in each region a bye and maybe have four play-in games, Thorne didn’t mince words.

“It would be a wonderful idea,” he said.

There is probably not a playoff expansion on the horizon, but the North Central Cardinals are sure making a strong case to be included in the playoff chase again.