/playoffs/2013/north-central-again-has-a-big-opportunity

North Central again has a big opportunity

More news about: North Central (Ill.)
Senior tackles Jace Werkheiser, above, and Greg Whalen each had to lose weight so they could execute North Central's high-octane offense.
Photo by Steve Woltmann

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

A win over Bethel would solidify this year's team as the most successful in North Central history. A revved-up offense, resilient offensive line, stellar quarterback play, and reliable defense have brought the Cardinals to the brink of history. Past postseason failures may be the additional edge that gets North Central over the hump and into the semifinals for the first time in program history.

Assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne had designs to implement an high-octane offense in 2012. A multitude of factors prevented the Cardinals from getting up to full speed. Quarterback Spencer Stanek was returning after a year away from the team. All of his backups were inexperienced freshmen.

"We didn't want to expose Spencer too much last year," said Thorne. "After his year off, we were still getting him acclimated."

In 2012, the Cardinals had six turnovers in a season-opening loss to UW-La Crosse, bookended by seven turnovers in a second-round playoff loss to Linfield. According to Thorne, many of the offense's struggles began with the snap of the ball. Or, the Cardinals' inability to complete the center-quarterback exchange.

"We had an unbelievable epidemic of turnovers," said Thorne.

This year, the revolution was not going to be slowed. Thorne spent the entire offseason getting his team ready to run an uptempo attack inspired by the University of Oregon's offense.

"We spent a lot of time in the spring working on pace," said Thorne. "The guys embraced it wholeheartedly and came into camp in great shape."

No position group felt the change more than the offensive line. They had to change their lifestyle in addition to their style of play. Anchored by senior tackles Jace Werkheiser and Greg Whalen, the Cardinals' line quickly adapted to the new style. Then, they enjoyed wearing down opponents to the tune of 515 yards per game, fifth in the nation.

"We had to get in better shape. Greg lost 30 pounds, and I lost 15," said Werkheiser. "We're seeing a lot more rotations from defensive lines. It's a good feeling knowing we're in shape and going to be able to finish."

Unexpectedly, Mother Nature helped the offense prepare for its new pace. Nine out of the Cardinals' 13 spring practices challenged their ability to adapt on the fly. Weather, including a flood in Naperville, forced North Central to relocate the majority of their spring practices with little forewarning. Although unplanned, the sudden changes in the spring helped the Cardinals prepare for the on-field changes they would have to roll with in the fall.

"Everything was always last minute," said Thorne. "The players really got accustomed to something changing on them quickly and having to respond."

Once the season began, the Cardinals were prepared for adversity. When injuries hit the offensive line, the reserves excelled. Sophomore Eric Knaperek and Air Force Academy transfer Pat Bolger emerged at guard, and junior Marc DesLauriers filled in for John Cannova at center.

"We've had a number of guys play on the offensive line this year," said Whalen. "Our young guys stepped up tremendously. It's nice to have a unit of tough guys to play with."

While most teams struggle to remain healthy into December, the Cardinals may be the closest they have been to full strength all year.

"Our offensive line is finally healthy," said Werkheiser. "I think we're just now hitting our stride."

There is no easy way to prepare for North Central's relentless attack. The Cardinals average 259.2 yards passing and 255.9 yards rushing per game. In the second round win over UW-Platteville, Stanek passed for 274 yards and three touchdowns while junior running back Ryan Kent exploded for a career-high 257 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

"Our depth has really paid off," said Thorne. "We are much more balanced on offense."

While they entered last season with trepidation, not knowing how the new offense would work, this season began with more confidence. Still, Thorne was not sure how well the second attempt at installing the offense would work until he saw it live. Opening the season against three WIAC opponents was a very solid test for the CCIW champion. Rallying from an early deficit to defeat UW-La Crosse in the opener was a relief for Thorne, who enjoyed seeing his offense put up 41 points and a school-record 674 yards.

"The very first game so far surpassed what we thought we could do," said Thorne. "In the past, we struggled when we fell behind. We kept plugging away."

The offense knows that it cannot succeed on its own. Six Cardinals defenders earned first team All-CCIW honors, led by defensive back Shane Dierking, the conference Defensive Player of the Year.

"An uptempo offense puts pressure on our defense. They've been amazing. They keep getting better every week," said Thorne. "Having that defense that we can fall back on is really reassuring. Plus, having a quarterback playing at the level Spencer is playing at gives us a great chance to win each week."

The 12 wins so far equal the program's best, set in 2010, which was also the last year the Cardinals advanced to the quarterfinals. High rankings have been met with early playoff exits, putting a damper on the program's streak of eight playoff appearances in the past nine years.

"It's nobody's fault but our own," said Thorne. "We lost some games that we could have and should have won."

As freshmen, this senior class lost to eventual champion UW-Whitewater in the quarterfinals, then lost in the second round as sophomores and juniors. Two years ago, the Cardinals allowed a 21-0 halftime lead to slip away at home. This team's focus on toughness has been as much mental as physical.

"That's been haunting us since Wabash came back and beat us," said Werkheiser. "Our senior class keeps our team confident. We don't get down when we make mistakes."

Each regular season win got the Cardinals one step closer to earning a home game during the week of Thanksgiving, when North Central has final exams. Advancing past the second round was a major goal for the seniors, and playing at home during finals week was an advantage. Now, the Cardinals can play loose on the road, having won the games it was expected to win.

"It was a monkey off my back, honestly," said Whalen. "We have a notorious reputation for losing games in the second round that we were capable of winning."

In the second halves of their games, the Cardinals outscored their top CCIW challengers, Illinois Wesleyan and Wheaton, by a combined score of 45-6. That ability to pull away late and impose their will on opponents is something that has eluded past North Central teams at this time of year.

"It's been nice to finish games like we have this year. That was something we struggled with in the past," said Whalen. "People challenged our toughness. We really built up our mental toughness this year. I think there's a different level of confidence with this team."

A win at Bethel would place North Central in the national semifinals for the first time in program history. With 89 wins and counting over the past nine seasons, the Cardinals have established themselves as a perennial playoff contender. One more win, one more breakthrough, would go a long way toward placing North Central in the conversation with the purple Stagg Bowl powers. This year's squad believes the program belongs in that conversation and wants to prove it.

"We're playing for those guys who played here before us who got us on the national stage," said Werkheiser. "We want to prove that we can play with the best teams in the nation."

Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
Salve Regina 45, at Nichols 10
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Mount Ida 14, at Dean 7
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at Thomas More 59, Waynesburg 7
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Final
at Maine Maritime 34, Coast Guard 16
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at Finlandia 27, Trinity Bible 21
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Hamilton 28, at Bowdoin 7
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Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
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at Olivet 47, Albion 26
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at Wesleyan 41, Bates 23
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Union 27, at Rochester 0
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Amherst 40, at Colby 7
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at Western New England 41, Endicott 14
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at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
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Final - OT
at Plymouth State 16, Framingham State 13
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at RPI 27, Ithaca 14
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Hobart 49, at Hartwick 27
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at Ferrum 34, LaGrange 20
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at Carnegie Mellon 42, Geneva 27
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Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
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DePauw 26, at Denison 17
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at Trine 42, Kalamazoo 7
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at Washington and Lee 47, Guilford 26
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at Husson 49, Castleton 0
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Final
Gallaudet 35, at Alfred State 19
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Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
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Brevard 41, at Methodist 17
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at Lebanon Valley 31, Stevenson 24
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Final
Buffalo State 24, at St. Lawrence 21
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Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
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at Randolph-Macon 52, Emory and Henry 29
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at Wesley 29, Kean 9
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at Hampden-Sydney 58, Apprentice 28
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Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
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at N.C. Wesleyan 45, Greensboro 0
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at Westminster (Pa.) 49, Grove City 27
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Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
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at Westminster (Mo.) 56, Crown 15
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 29, Iowa Wesleyan 7
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at Knox 56, Grinnell 14
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at Widener 31, Lycoming 17
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Trinity (Conn.) 23, at Tufts 16
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at Mount St. Joseph 66, Earlham 7
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Ohio Northern 27, at John Carroll 20
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Baldwin Wallace 23, at Muskingum 20
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Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
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Rose-Hulman 44, at Manchester 13
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at Hanover 31, Bluffton 28
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Defiance 45, at Anderson 0
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at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
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Hiram 62, at Kenyon 56
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Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
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Final
Williams 27, at Middlebury 26
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at Westfield State 33, Fitchburg State 21
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Final
Marietta 43, at Wilmington 33
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at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
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Curry 40, at Becker 0
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TCNJ 20, at Rowan 14
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at SUNY-Maritime 51, Anna Maria 15
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Salisbury 28, at Montclair State 10
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at Huntingdon 28, Maryville (Tenn.) 16
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at Austin 33, Millsaps 19
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
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Final
at Washington U. 55, Buena Vista 20
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Final
Alma 27, at Aurora 19
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at Rockford 29, Concordia-Chicago 14
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Wisconsin Lutheran 22, at Concordia (Wis.) 19
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at Lakeland 57, Benedictine 21
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at St. Norbert 10, Chicago 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
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Final
St. Olaf 22, at Augsburg 20
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Final
Bethel 24, at Gustavus Adolphus 3
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Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Eureka 30, Greenville 19
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Final
Centre 27, at Trinity (Texas) 21
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Final
Dubuque 42, at Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Final
Central 30, at Coe 19
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Final
Lake Forest 56, at Cornell 28
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Final
at Carthage 31, Elmhurst 8
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Millikin 28, at Augustana 27
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Final
Ripon 52, at Beloit 28
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Final
MacMurray 49, at Minnesota-Morris 13
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Final
Macalester 21, at Lawrence 18
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Final
at Monmouth 59, Illinois College 14
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Final
at UW-Stevens Point 26, UW-Eau Claire 3
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Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
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Final
at Wooster 38, Oberlin 28
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Final
Texas Lutheran 41, at East Texas Baptist 34
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Final
at UW-Stout 21, UW-River Falls 16
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Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
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Final
Sewanee 34, at Birmingham-Southern 13
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Final
at Hope 22, Adrian 3
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Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
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Cancelled
La Verne at Occidental
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Final
Whitworth 17, at Pacific Lutheran 14
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Final
at Cal Lutheran 42, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 20
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Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
at Pacific 35, Puget Sound 27
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Pomona-Pitzer 45, at Whittier 23
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Final
at Western Connecticut 28, Massachusetts Maritime 21
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Final
at St. Scholastica 56, Martin Luther 21
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Final - 5OT
at St. John Fisher 39, Utica 36
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Final - OT
at Heidelberg 48, Otterbein 45
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Final
at Shenandoah 38, Bridgewater 20
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Final
Southwestern 60, at Belhaven 31
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
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Final
at Louisiana College 52, McMurry 34
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Final
at Simpson 38, Luther 17
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Final
at Chapman 45, Redlands 26
Video Video Box Score Recap Recap
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 42, North Central (Ill.) 20
Box Score Recap
Oct. 20: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Gettysburg at Johns Hopkins
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Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
Box Score Recap Live stats
Final
at Wesley 29, Kean 9
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
Video Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
Video Box Score
Final
at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
Video Box Score
Final
Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
Video Box Score Recap
Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
Video Box Score
Final
at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
Video Box Score Photos
Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
Video Box Score Recap
Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
Video Box Score Recap Photos
Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
Video Box Score Photos
Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
Video Box Score
Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
Box Score
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 42, North Central (Ill.) 20
Recap Box Score
Oct. 20: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Gettysburg at Johns Hopkins
Video Video Live stats Live stats