FRANKLIN, Ind. — Twentieth-ranked North Central College claimed a thrilling, come-from-behind victory on a last-second 19-yard touchdown catch by Steve Hlavac from Aaron Fanthorpe to give the Cardinals a 44-42 victory over 16th-ranked Franklin College in the first round of the NCAA III Playoffs Saturday at Faught Stadium.
The Cardinals (9-2) advance to play at UW-Whitewater Saturday, Nov. 24. UW-Whitewater defeated Capital University (Ohio) 34-14. Franklin ended its season with a 9-2 record.
The game-winning drive started at North Central's own 35-yard line with 1:08 to play and no timeouts remaining. Fanthorpe completed a 14-yard pass to Joe Mastrino for a first down at the Cardinals' 49. After an incomplete pass to Mastrino, Fanthorpe gained 10 yards up the middle for another first down at the Franklin 41. An incomplete pass was followed by a 22-yard connection to Hlavac that gave North Central the ball at the Grizzlies' 19. After two incomplete passes, the Cardinals faced third and 10 with only five ticks on the clock. Fanthorpe's final connection to Hlavac threaded the needle up the middle, and the 5-foot-9, 180-pound freshman caught the ball 1-yard deep into the end zone as time ran out.
Hlavac and Fanthorpe, high-school teammates, both enjoyed career days. Fanthorpe completed 23 of 42 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns while Hlavac caught 11 passes for 127 yards and four TDs. Mastrino had five grabs for 118 yards and one touchdown. Butch Rossberg led the ground game with 44 yards on 12 carries.
Franklin's Chad Rupp was just as impressive, completing 18 of 30 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. Adam Mellencamp caught four passes for 226 yards and two TDs. Craig Neal had four receptions for 65 yards and one TD. RJ Hartsfield gained 102 yards on 26 carries.
After trailing 35-24 at halftime and being forced to punt on its first possession of the second half, North Central came alive with two scores to take a 38-35 lead with 14:51 to play in the game. First, Hlavac caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Fanthorpe that made it 35-31 at the 4:25 mark of the third. Then Fanthorpe dove in from 1-yard out to cap a 10-play drive that gave the Cardinals their first lead of the day early in the fourth.
Franklin answered as Hartsfield scored from 1 yard out with 9:21 on the clock to put the Grizzlies back on top 42-38. The score was set up by a key 34-yard catch by Roshawn Hill that put Franklin at the North Central 1-yard line.
The first half was a run-and-gun affair with the teams combining for 49 points and 555 yards of offense. The Grizzlies scored on their first drive, thanks to a 53-yard reception by Mellencamp who dove into the end zone but was ruled down at the North Central 2. On third-and-goal with a five-receiver spread set, Rupp ran into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
North Central answered on its ensuing drive, with Rossberg making a 32-yard reception to the Franklin 27. Fanthorpe converted a key fourth down with an 8-yard gain, and Hlavac capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown catch to tie it up at 7s with 6:56.
Franklin needed only 1:44 to score on its next drive, with Craig catching an 18-yard TD from Rupp for a 14-7 lead with 5:12 to play in the first. The Cardinals answered again on their next possession, as Fanthorpe and Hlavac connected on a 5-yard score at the 3:51 mark of the first.
The Grizzlies surged ahead 21-14 when Rupp tossed an 87-yard bomb to Mellencamp. The two also connected on a 69-yard scoring play on Franklin's next drive that increased the advantage to 28-14 with 11:58 to play in the second quarter.
North Central cut the lead to 28-21 at the 9:08 mark of the second quarter. After pounding the ball up the middle with runs by Rossberg, Fanthorpe found Mastrino on a 45-yard TD pass.
With quick strikes on its first four scoring possessions, the Grizzlies grinded out a 15-play, 65-yard touchdown drive on its next possession that ate up over five minutes of clocktime. Matt Gates caught a 3-yard touchdowns toss from Rupp to finish the drive and give Franklin a 35-21 lead with just over three minutes before halftime.
North Central got a 31-yard field goal from Ben Aguilar just before halftime to make the score 35-24 at the break.