WHEATON, Ill. - Dominating from wire to wire in what was expected to be a titanic battle, the North Central College football team retained the Little Brass Bell for the third straight year in a 28-6 victory over Wheaton College at McCully Stadium.
The fifth-ranked Cardinals (9-0, 6-0 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin) clinched at least a share of their fifth consecutive CCIW championship and have secured the CCIW's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championships. North Central's three-year winning streak in the season's only trophy game is the program's longest since winning six straight from 1977-82.
Also resulting from the team's victory was a record for head coach John Thorne, who now owns the school's all-time record for coaching victories. In his ninth season, Thorne owns a record of 75-21, which puts him ahead of the 74 victories compiled by the late Gordon Fisher from 1926-42.
The Cardinals were able to take the steam out of their opponents and the Wheaton crowd by constructing an extended scoring drive on the first possession of the game. Nick Kukuc took an option pitch from Jordan Tassio and gained 37 yards on the first play from scrimmage, kickstarting a 10-play, 87-yard drive that ended whenSpencer Stanek lofted a nine-yard touchdown pass to the deep left corner of the end zone and into the hands of Andy Stuursma with 9:06 on the clock.
The North Central defense forced a trio of incomplete passes and got the ball back on a punt 33 seconds later. The Cardinals then embarked on a 12-play, 68-yard scoring series which culminated in Tassio firing a pass down the middle to Kyle Fiedorowicz for a 19-yard touchdown. With 2:37 left in the first period, the visitors owned a 14-0 advantage.
12th-ranked Wheaton (8-1, 5-1 CCIW) got on the board on the following possession, converting a pair of early third downs and advancing to the Cardinals' 22 before kicker Scott Roche converted a 39-yard field goal attempt with 12:01 remaining in the second period.
After turning the ball over on downs on its next drive, North Central got an extra scoring opportunity when Josh McLeod picked off a pass from Thunder quarterback Garrett Meador and gave the Cardinals possession at the Wheaton 44-yard line. Stanek eluded the Wheaton pass rush and completed a seven-yard pass to Tassio before Kukuc covered the final 37 yards on a pair of runs, the second of which was a 20-yard touchdown run that extended the Cardinals' lead to 21-3, which stood as the halftime score.
The Cardinals stuffed a fake field goal on Wheaton's first second-half drive, which was the only scoring opportunity by either team in the third period. The Thunder put together a 13-play, 65-yard drive that started late in the third quarter and finished with a 33-yard field goal by Roche with 13:25 to play in the fourth period, narrowing the gap to 21-6.
North Central's final scoring drive started at its own 39-yard line. The Thunder turned up their defensive pressure and threw Tassio for a 10-yard loss on the first play of the series, but Stanek eluded the rush and found Stuursma for a 32-yard completion on second down. On third down-and-11 from the Wheaton 13, Stanek again threw to Stuursma on a fade route, this time to the deep right corner of the end zone, for the wideout's second TD of the game and a 28-6 advantage with 4:05 to play. The 11-play, 61-yard drive ate up 5:22 of the clock.
The Cardinals outgained Wheaton, 304-196, and owned a 36:02-26:58 advantage in time of possession. Kukuc gained 91 yards on 13 rushing attempts, while Tassio picked up 64 yards on 21 carries. Stanek completed 10 of 17 passes for 110 yards, while Stuursma established new career highs with seven receptions for 89 yards.
Matt Wenger led the charge on defense with 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup, while Joe Schneiderbauer finished with nine total stops and McLeod wound up with two interceptions.
The Cardinals will attempt to complete an unbeaten run through the regular season and win the CCIW title outright on Saturday, hosting North Park University (2-7, 0-6 CCIW) at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m., with Senior Day festivities to be conducted prior to the game.