December 4, 2013

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."

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