December 1, 2010

Who is North Central?

More news about: North Central (Ill.)

By Jason Bailey
for D3sports.com

Jordan Tassio
Some years, Jordan Tassio might have gotten 300 carries by now and been on the national leaderboard. But with his 157 carries and Nick Kukuc's 126, North Central is better off as a team.
Photo by David Rich, d3photography.com

The North Central defense has embraced change, except when it happens on the scoreboard.

The introduction of regular substitutions developed the team’s depth and allowed key players to stay healthy, a major reason why the No. 5 Cardinals are second in the nation in points allowed (8.33) behind Mount Union (6.83). They haven’t allowed more than 14 points in a game.

“That’s what it’s really about on defense. Keeping points off the board,” said fifth-year linebacker Matt Wenger, who returned after an ACL injury to his left knee sidelined him in last year’s opener. “They can have as many stats as they want, but if they don’t score, they won’t win.”

Including their important 28-6 win against Wheaton in the regular season, the Cardinals have shut down three playoff offenses that averaged more than 30 points per game. North Central beat St. Norbert 57-7 in the first round of the postseason before defeating Ohio Northern 28-9 last week.

It’s the first time North Central (12-0, 7-0 CCIW) has advanced to the quarterfinals, where it faces defending national champion UW-Whitewater (12-0, 7-0 WIAC). The Cardinals were eliminated in the second round three consecutive years, including a 59-28 loss to the eventual champion Warhawks in 2007, before missing the playoffs last season with an 8-2 record.

A common thread in those playoff defeats was injuries to key players that ultimately crippled North Central. Every team faces injuries, but relying on a star running back or defensive end throughout the regular season often meant that cornerstone was worn down by the postseason.

Before this season, North Central coach John Thorne sat down with his staff and agreed they needed to develop three-deep at every position. Most importantly, they decided to pull starters at times and use players who otherwise would remain sitting on the bench. The experiment has been so successful that the Cardinals are recruiting with the new philosophy in mind.

“We have been playing lots of players at every position, and it’s really helped us have a chance for them to still be healthy,” Thorne said. “They have to be totally, totally unselfish to allow this to happen because their statistical numbers are not going to be things that jump right off of the paper because they’re not able to play a full game. We’ve got a great group of guys who care about each other, and who are willing to sacrifice and be totally unselfish.”

Wenger is a perfect example. He posted sublime numbers in 2008 -- leading the Cardinals in tackles (137), sacks (5.5), tackles for loss (12.5) and interceptions (8) in 12 games -- and was named the CCIW defensive player of the year en route to earning second team All-America recognition. Although this year’s statistics are relatively subdued (107 tackles, 1 sack, 10 tackles for loss and no interceptions in 11 games) and comparable to his sophomore season, Wenger earned his second CCIW defensive player of the year award. He did his damage in less time.

“We tried not to build the defense so Matt would not just be the superstar,” said Thorne, who this season set the school record for coaching victories, currently at 78. “We wanted to build a defense for the long-term. He’s on the sideline quite often in some games.”

Wenger didn’t play in an easy regular-season finale against North Park (the Vikings have lost 75 consecutive conference games) to keep his legs fresh and increase repetitions for backups in a game the Cardinals won handily. Linebackers start rotating in the third quarter to keep players rested if the game comes down to a final drive or to bolster team depth if victory is inevitable.

“I think it’s great. If we’re able to get some other guys in there, it means we’re winning the game. And that’s the goal,” Wenger said. “It’s not about having to play every single play. And guys really embrace that if we have the game in check, let’s get some other guys in there. There’s not any selfishness on this team. Guys aren’t getting mad for not being in there.”

The defensive line rotates eight to 10 players throughout the game, keeping the superstars -- senior end Valente Garza (11.5 sacks) and junior end Willie Hayes (10.5 sacks) are within striking distance of the school’s single-season sack record (14) -- more energized on the field. If the offense picks up a first down, a new defensive line enters the field like a line shift in hockey.

Defensive coordinator Rick Ponx said keeping players involved also makes them more invested in the team and more involved during weekly preparation. He said it was easy in the past for backups to lose interest halfway through the season because they didn’t see any playing time.

“What that’s helped us do is helped the team come close together,” said Ponx, in his first year as defensive coordinator after six seasons coaching the Cardinals’ offensive line. “It certainly keeps people fresh. But now they cheer for each other, and they’re all friends. I think they’re closer as a team, and often times that’s overlooked. There’s no jealousy of who’s getting time and who’s getting sacks.”

Another benefit of using so many players is the ability to present multiple defenses and keep the opposition guessing. North Central technically transitioned away from a 3-4 defense, but starts games in the formation before shifting to a 4-3, 4-4 or 4-2 as the situation dictates. But whatever formation offenses are presented, they know to expect speed.

Several defensive linemen, including Garza, are converted linebackers who are undersized speed-rushers and benefit when they can catch their breath. And it’s Wenger’s game-changing speed and aggressiveness that has attracted a dozen NFL scouts to Naperville, Ill., this season.

“He’s very fast, very physical. Amazing balance,” Thorne said. “He can find tiny little creases and explode through them. His contact level (is great) ... there’s been many games where the game has had to be stopped because somebody has stayed on the ground. Luckily every single time, the player has been OK.”

North Central keeps points off the board in part because its quickness to the ball is magnified when the field shrinks in the red zone. Not having to defend deep pass routes allows players to get more aggressive, and the Cardinals have held opponents without points almost half the time they drive into the red zone (five touchdowns and 10 field goals allowed in 27 possessions).

“Throughout practice, every play, everybody runs right to the ball no matter where it is -- whether it’s a deep pass or a 1-yard run,” Garza said. “In a game, whether we’re a red jersey or a white jersey, it’s a swarm of red or white going right to the ball. If someone misses a tackle, there are five or six others waiting right there.”

It truly is a team effort for North Central, which had four defensive players named to the all-CCIW first team (Wenger, Garza, Hayes and junior safety Josh McLeod, who tied Wenger’s school record with eight interceptions) and four named to the second team (fifth-year safety Derek Sulo, fifth-year cornerback Scott Hogan, senior linebacker Joe Scheiderbauer and junior tackle Peter Bulandr).

North Central will need that overwhelming pursuit to slow down a potent Whitewater offense that averages 43.8 points per game, but the Cardinals have the luxury of home-field advantage after controversially earning the No. 1 seed in the North region. Players don’t think an upset victory over the Warhawks would be cause to celebrate, though, because they have bigger dreams.

“Really, winning the second round isn’t our ultimate goal,” Wenger said. “It’s just another step we’ve got to take to get where we want to be. We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied, and I think that’s the mindset that you have to take. If you’re not winning the national championship, you can’t be satisfied.”

comments powered by Disqus
Oct. 18: All times Eastern
Final
MIT 52, at Nichols 20
Box Score Recap
Final
at Colby 47, Hamilton 14
Box Score Recap Recap
Final - OT
Western Connecticut 20, at Fitchburg State 14
Box Score
Final
at Maine Maritime 13, Coast Guard 7
Box Score Photos
Final
at Salve Regina 49, Curry 6
Box Score Photos
Final
Westfield State 32, at Massachusetts Maritime 16
Box Score Recap
Final
at Juniata 38, Ursinus 10
Box Score
Final
Trinity (Conn.) 17, at Bowdoin 10
Box Score
Final
at Husson 12, Gallaudet 6
Box Score Recap
Final
at Middlebury 35, Bates 6
Box Score
Final
at Mount Ida 26, Castleton State 21
Box Score Recap
Final
Kean 30, at William Paterson 24
Box Score Recap
Final
at Cortland State 35, Southern Virginia 0
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Franklin and Marshall 31, McDaniel 7
Box Score
Final
Ohio Wesleyan 23, at DePauw 16
Box Score
Final
Susquehanna 24, at Moravian 21
Box Score Photos
Final
Washington and Jefferson 34, at Bethany 3
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
Shenandoah 24, at Catholic 14
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
Concordia (Wis.) 49, at Trine 46
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hampden-Sydney 49, Emory and Henry 27
Box Score
Final
at Washington and Lee 28, Randolph-Macon 25
Box Score
Final
at Carnegie Mellon 21, Grove City 10
Box Score Photos
Final
at Guilford 35, Bridgewater (Va.) 28
Box Score Recap Recap Photos
Final
at Widener 59, Wilkes 12
Box Score
Final
Methodist 73, at LaGrange 28
Box Score
Final
Maryville (Tenn.) 39, at Greensboro 14
Box Score Photos
Final
Brockport State 45, at Alfred 42
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
Huntingdon 35, at Ferrum 16
Box Score
Final - 2OT
at Frostburg State 38, Ithaca 37
Box Score Recap
Final
Waynesburg 26, at Westminster (Pa.) 21
Box Score
Final
at Muhlenberg 47, Gettysburg 6
Box Score Recap
Final
Wabash 52, at Kenyon 10
Box Score Recap
Final
at Salisbury 59, Hartwick 49
Box Score Photos
Final
at Bridgewater State 24, Plymouth State 0
Box Score Recap
Final
St. John Fisher 42, at Utica 7
Box Score Recap
Final
King's 45, at FDU-Florham 17
Final
at Rochester 34, RPI 20
Box Score Recap
Final
at Berry 46, Hendrix 24
Box Score Recap
Cancelled
Maranatha Baptist at Washington U.
Final
at Northwestern (Minn.) 35, Greenville 28
Box Score Recap
Final - OT
Amherst 33, at Wesleyan 30
Box Score
Final
at Tufts 27, Williams 20
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Case Western Reserve 33, Geneva 19
Box Score Photos
Final
Franklin 38, at Mount St. Joseph 28
Box Score
Final
at Thomas More 49, St. Vincent 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Baldwin Wallace 56, at Wilmington 17
Box Score Photos
Final
at Mount Union 58, Heidelberg 17
Box Score Recap Photos Photos
Final
Rose-Hulman 28, at Defiance 12
Box Score
Final
at John Carroll 80, Marietta 0
Box Score Recap
Final
at Anderson 37, Hanover 35
Box Score
Final
Bluffton 24, at Earlham 22
Box Score Recap
Final
Otterbein 32, at Muskingum 20
Box Score
Final
at Springfield 48, Merchant Marine 21
Box Score
Final
Ohio Northern 38, at Capital 31
Box Score
Final - OT
at Hope 42, Olivet 35
Box Score Recap Recap Photos Photos
Final
at Kalamazoo 45, Alma 24
Box Score Recap
Final
at Rowan 31, Morrisville State 0
Box Score Recap
Final
Oberlin 37, at Allegheny 9
Box Score Recap
Final
Lakeland 34, at Rockford 7
Box Score Recap
Final
at Bethel 52, Chicago 21
Box Score Photos
Final
Wisconsin Lutheran 59, at Concordia-Chicago 15
Box Score
Final
Centre 31, at Sewanee 3
Box Score
Final
St. John's 29, at Gustavus Adolphus 19
Box Score Photos
Final
St. Olaf 17, at Carleton 13
Box Score Photos
Final
Concordia-Moorhead 41, at Augsburg 21
Box Score
Final
Monmouth 31, at Lake Forest 7
Box Score
Final
Birmingham-Southern 16, at Millsaps 14
Box Score
Final
Coe 35, at Simpson 21
Box Score Recap
Final
at Buena Vista 48, Luther 41
Box Score
Final
Macalester 28, at Beloit 21
Box Score
Final
at St. Norbert 13, Ripon 10
Box Score Recap
Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 45, Louisiana College 24
Box Score Recap
Final
Augustana 7, at Illinois Wesleyan 2
Box Score Recap
Final
at Central 41, Loras 14
Box Score Recap
Final
MacMurray 58, at Eureka 27
Box Score
Final
at UW-La Crosse 21, UW-Stout 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Illinois College 35, at Grinnell 10
Box Score
Final
at Iowa Wesleyan 37, Westminster (Mo.) 21
Box Score
Final
Benedictine 26, at Aurora 0
Box Score Recap
Final
St. Thomas 62, at Hamline 24
Box Score Recap
Final
Norwich 37, at Becker 20
Box Score Recap
Final
at Worcester State 50, Mass-Dartmouth 43
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hardin-Simmons 19, Sul Ross State 12
Box Score Photos Photos
Final
at Wartburg 42, Dubuque 9
Box Score
Final
at UW-Oshkosh 37, UW-River Falls 7
Box Score
Final
Delaware Valley 35, at Stevenson 13
Box Score Recap
Final
SUNY-Maritime 40, at Anna Maria 12
Box Score Recap
Final
Wittenberg 42, at Wooster 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Wesley 70, at Menlo 2
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
St. Scholastica 49, at Martin Luther 14
Box Score
Final
Austin 27, at Southwestern Assemblies 20
Box Score Photos
Final
UW-Whitewater 52, at UW-Eau Claire 3
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at North Central (Ill.) 53, Carthage 23
Box Score Recap
Final
at UW-Platteville 31, UW-Stevens Point 13
Box Score Recap Photos Photos
Final
at Elmhurst 28, North Park 0
Final
at Cornell 49, Knox 29
Box Score
Final
at Montclair State 28, TCNJ 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Western New England 36, at Union 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Carroll 76, Lawrence 7
Box Score
Final
at Pacific 31, Pacific Lutheran 28
Box Score Recap
Final
at Cal Lutheran 41, Pomona-Pitzer 17
Box Score Photos
Final
at Willamette 45, Lewis and Clark 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Puget Sound 33, at George Fox 14
Box Score Photos
Final
at Linfield 65, Whitworth 13
Box Score Recap
Final
at Adrian 47, Albion 26
Box Score Recap Recap Photos
Final
Christopher Newport 38, at Averett 7
Box Score
Final
at Alfred State 10, Erie CC 3
Box Score Photos
Final
at Crown 30, Minnesota-Morris 27
Box Score
Final
at Trinity (Texas) 22, Southwestern 19
Box Score
Final
Howard Payne 54, at East Texas Baptist 53
Box Score
Final
Wheaton (Ill.) 28, at Millikin 3
Box Score
Final
at Whittier 36, La Verne 17
Box Score Photos Photos
Final
at Redlands 31, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 7
Box Score Recap
Final
at Chapman 59, Occidental 21
Box Score Photos
Oct. 24: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Gettysburg at Johns Hopkins
Oct. 25: All times Eastern
8:00 PM
North Central (Ill.) at Wheaton (Ill.)
Live Stats Video Audio
2:00 PM
Case Western Reserve at Washington and Jefferson
Live Stats Video Audio
1:30 PM
Grove City at Thomas More
Live Stats Audio Audio
1:30 PM
Wilmington at Mount Union
Preview Live Stats Audio Tickets
1:30 PM
Capital at John Carroll
Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
Wesley at Virginia-Lynchburg
Audio
1:00 PM
Hampden-Sydney at Shenandoah
Preview Live Stats Video Audio Audio
1:00 PM
Oberlin at Wabash
Live Stats Video Audio
1:00 PM
St. John Fisher at Alfred State
Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Kenyon at Wittenberg
Live Stats Video
1:00 PM
Misericordia at Delaware Valley
Live Stats Audio
3:00 PM
UW-Platteville at UW-Stout
Live Stats Video Audio Audio
2:10 PM
St. Thomas at Bethel
Live Stats Video Audio
12:00 PM
Hobart at RPI
Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
UW-Oshkosh at UW-Whitewater
Live Stats Audio Audio
2:00 PM
Luther at Wartburg
Live Stats Video Audio
2:00 PM
Mary Hardin-Baylor at Texas Lutheran
Live Stats Video
2:00 PM
Hamline at Concordia-Moorhead
Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
UW-La Crosse at UW-Stevens Point
Live Stats Video Audio Audio
2:00 PM
Carleton at St. John's
Live Stats Video Audio Audio
4:00 PM
Linfield at Lewis and Clark
Live Stats Video Audio
4:00 PM
Willamette at Pacific Lutheran
Live Stats Audio
Oct. 24: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Gettysburg at Johns Hopkins
Oct. 18: All times Eastern
Final
Wheaton (Ill.) 28, at Millikin 3
Box Score
Final
Wesley 70, at Menlo 2
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
Wittenberg 42, at Wooster 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Delaware Valley 35, at Stevenson 13
Box Score Recap
Final
at Mount Union 58, Heidelberg 17
Box Score Recap Photos Photos
Final
at Thomas More 49, St. Vincent 7
Box Score Recap
Final
at John Carroll 80, Marietta 0
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hampden-Sydney 49, Emory and Henry 27
Box Score
Final
Wabash 52, at Kenyon 10
Box Score Recap
Final
St. John Fisher 42, at Utica 7
Box Score Recap
Final
Washington and Jefferson 34, at Bethany 3
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at North Central (Ill.) 53, Carthage 23
Box Score Recap
Final
UW-Whitewater 52, at UW-Eau Claire 3
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at UW-Platteville 31, UW-Stevens Point 13
Box Score Recap Photos Photos
Final
at Wartburg 42, Dubuque 9
Box Score
Final
St. Thomas 62, at Hamline 24
Box Score Recap
Final
at Bethel 52, Chicago 21
Box Score Photos
Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 45, Louisiana College 24
Box Score Recap
Final
Concordia-Moorhead 41, at Augsburg 21
Box Score
Final
St. John's 29, at Gustavus Adolphus 19
Box Score Photos
Final
at Linfield 65, Whitworth 13
Box Score Recap
Final
at Pacific 31, Pacific Lutheran 28
Box Score Recap

What We're Reading