Scoring on their first nine possessions, the North Central College football team leaped into the postseason on Saturday. The Cardinals came out firing on all cylinders, dismantling St. Norbert College (Wis.), 57-7, in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Playoffs at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
North Central (11-0), seeded first in the North Region heading into the contest, saw its offense carve up the eighth-seeded Green Knights for 612 yards of total offense, the fourth-highest total in school history and the most the Cardinals have ever compiled in a postseason game.
The Cardinals needed less than two minutes to establish a lead they would not relinquish. After three straight runs by Jordan Tassio to open the game's first drive, quarterback Spencer Stanek fired his first pass attempt toward tight end Kyle Fiedorowicz, who shook off a pair of would-be tacklers and rambled 41 yards for a touchdown. After the North Central defense forced a punt, Stanek connected with Fiedorowicz for a 45-yard gain that left the Cardinals knocking on the door at the St. Norbert four-yard line. A three-yard TD toss to Jeff Grunwald doubled the home team's advantage to 14-0 with 8:08 remaining in the opening period.
The Green Knights' next drive came to an end at the North Central 29, as Josh McLeod picked off his seventh pass of the season. A series of running plays by Stanek and Nick Kukuc moved the Cardinals into the visitors' half of the field. On second down at the St. Norbert 37, Stanek scurried away from an oncoming pass rush and uncorked a deep pass to Manny Juarez, who eluded a pair of defenders and advanced to the end zone for a 20-0 Cardinal lead.
North Central came up with a second interception on the ensuing drive, as Scott Skuteris made a diving grab at the 50-yard line early in the second period. The Cardinals drove to the 14 and got a 31-yard field goal from Nick Dace, extending the advantage to 23-0.
Following a Green Knights punt, the Cardinals put together a nine-play, 59-yard scoring jaunt that culminated with a one-yard TD run by Tassio. With 48 seconds left in the half, the Cardinals' offense took the field once again and wound up having just enough time to visit the end zone once again, as Stanek completed a 49-yard TD pass to Joe Antonacci with just 11 seconds on the clock. North Central headed into halftime with a 36-0 edge.
A 38-yard run by Tassio jumpstarted North Central's first drive of the second half, which ended with a one-yard scoring run by Kukuc. Denzel Thompson was the pivotal figure in the following Cardinal possession, carrying four times for 32 yards and scoring on a six-yard TD run.
Brad Crackel, who came on midway through the third period to see his first action since Oct. 30 at Elmhurst, authored the final North Central score. Facing third-and-long at the St. Norbert 45, Crackel threw a screen pass to Nick Hicks, who darted down the right sideline for the touchdown.
The Green Knights (7-4) scored on their final possession of the contest, traveling 63 yards on nine plays and scoring on a one-yard run by quarterback Rob Berger.
Tassio finished with 87 rushing yards on 10 carries, while Thompson ran 15 times for 77 yards and Kukuc gained 66 yards on 10 carries. Stanek completed 12 of 14 passes for 262 yards, while Crackel was 4 for 5 for 71 yards. Juarez finished as the Cardinals' top receiver with 67 yards on four catches.
Joey Michals was North Central's top tackler with seven tackles, while Shane Dierking also contributed an interception. The Cardinals limited St. Norbert to 271 yards, 143 of which came in the fourth period.
Berger completed 15 of 33 passes for 192 yards and was the Green Knights' top rusher with 65 yards on 12 carries. Ben Nantell was St. Norbert's leading tackler with nine stops.
The Cardinals host Ohio Northern University (10-1) next week in the second round, with kickoff scheduled for 12:00 noon. The Polar Bears defeated Wittenberg University (Ohio), 37-14, in the opening round.