The North Central College football team is preparing for a December contest for the first time in its history after scoring a second-round win in the NCAA Division III Playoffs on Saturday. The Cardinals shook off a sluggish first quarter and worked over the Ohio Northern University Polar Bears, 28-9, at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
North Central (12-0) had issues getting untracked in the early going, managing just 10 yards of total offense in the first period while incurring four penalties. The first of those penalties, a subsitution infraction, prevented the Cardinals' defense from forcing a three-and-out and kept Ohio Northern's offense on the field on the visitors' first possession.
The Polar Bears wound up advancing deep into North Central territory and setting up a first-and-goal from the Cardinals' nine-yard line. The hosts stifled two rushing attempts and forced an incomplete pass to force ONU to send on kicker Blair Ellenberger for a 22-yard field goal attempt. The kick split the uprights, giving the guests an early 3-0 lead.
Ohio Northern (10-2) threatened to score again midway through the second period, advancing to the Cardinals' 14 before a tackle for loss by Peter Bulandr, a quarterback sack by Valente Garza and a Polar Bear holding penalty backed the visitors out of field goal range. ONU lined up to punt, but the kick was blocked by Kyle Haste, giving the Cardinals possession at their own 44-yard line.
Nick Kukuc burst through the middle of the Ohio Northern defense on the next play from scrimmage to get the Cardinals into their opponents' half of the field for the first time, and quarterback Spencer Stanek capped off a five-play, 56-yard drive by calling his own number for a five-yard touchdown run, giving North Central a 7-0 edge with 2:48 left in the first half.
The Polar Bears punted on their final first-half possession, giving North Central the ball on its own 25 with 1:51 on the clock. The Cardinals faced a third down-and-one from their own 49 with less than a minute to go when Kukuc slithered through the ONU line and broke into the open field, narrowly avoiding getting run out of bounds and scoring on a 51-yard run to send the Cardinals into halftime with a 14-3 advantage.
Another big run opened the door for North Central's first score of the second half, as Jordan Tassio broke free for a 48-yard run that set up a first-and-goal at the Polar Bears' seven-yard line. On second down at the two-yard line, tight end Jeff Grunwald lined up in the backfield and took a handoff to score on his first career rushing attempt.
The Cardinals' final scoring drive started at the Ohio Northern 38 following an 18-yard punt return by Joe Antonacci. A series of five running plays moved North Central to the three-yard line, and Kukuc scored for the second time with 5:19 to play, giving the home team a 28-3 lead.
The Polar Bears found the end zone on the game's final drive, as quarterback Kyle Simmons connected with Jay Priest for an 18-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
The Cardinals ran the ball on 47 of their 54 plays, gaining 285 of their 325 total yards on the ground. Kukuc ran 14 times a career-high 137 yards, while Tassio carried the ball 17 times for 111 yards and Stanke gained 29 yards on 11 carries while completing four of seven passes for 40 yards.
North Central's defense was paced by Matt Wenger's 18 total tackles, which tied a career best. Garza finished with two quarterback sacks and Josh McLeod tied a single-season school record with his eighth interception.
Cardinal receiver Steve Hlavac caught a 10-yard pass to push his career yardage total to 2,444, eclipsing the Cardinals' career record which had been held by Tyke Spencer '06. Kicker Nick Dace connected on four extra-point kicks to establish a new North Central single-season record (48), while the Cardinals also set team single-season records for total offensive yards (5,151) and quarterback sacks (45).
North Central will host next Saturday's North Region Championship game against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which defeated Trine University (Ind.), 45-31, in its second-round game. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:00 noon.