Big plays on both sides of the ball wound up putting a close game out of reach for the North Central College football team on Saturday, as the sixth-ranked Cardinals scored twice in the final 1:20 to ice a 24-3 victory over the Augustana College Vikings at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
It was the sixth straight win for North Central (4-1, 2-0 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin) over Augustana, which now drops to 0-5 for the season and 0-2 in CCIW play. The Cardinals have now won 11 straight times against CCIW opposition and have prevailed in 21 straight regular-season home games.
North Central's offense struggled to get untracked early in the contest despite moving the ball well under the direction of freshman quarterback Tyler Dicken, who was making his first collegiate start. The Cardinals took the opening drive all the way down to the Augustana four-yard line, but were unable to move any further and brought kicker Nick Dace on for a 25-yard field goal attempt. Unfortunately, however, Dace's kick sailed just wide of the goal post and the game remained scoreless.
"That was a tough way to start," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "It was very unfortunate not to get that field goal. That really would have helped to get the momentum moving our way."
The next three possessions each ended in punts, as the Cardinals' defense yielded a total of three yards on Augustana's first two drives. Taking over for the hosts' third possession of the night at the Augustana 40, Dicken uncorked a 38-yard pass to Jeff Stolzenburg to put the Cardinals just outside the end zone. Two plays later, Nick Kukuc took an option pitch for a one-yard touchdown run to give North Central a 7-0 advantage with 3:03 left in the first quarter.
Neither team would threaten to score for the rest of the first half, though the Cardinals did tack on three points in their first drive of the second half. The possession nearly ended early deep in North Central territory, but Dicken completed a 23-yard pass to Nick Hicks on third-down-and-16 to keep the drive alive. Back-to-back 18-yard runs by Kukuc and Jordan Tassio put the Cardinals within striking distance, and Dace wound up connecting on a 34-yard field goal attempt with 7:39 to go in the third quarter to extend North Central's lead to 10-0.
After managing just one first down in nearly three quarters of play, Augustana mounted its lone scoring drive of the evening, traveling 65 yards in eight plays to set kicker Brady Rogers up with a 25-yard field goal attempt. Rogers split the uprights, narrowing the gap to 10-3 with 34 seconds left in the third period.
Viking punter Arnie Fitzwater's 10th punt of the night forced the Cardinals to begin a drive in the shadow of their own goalpost with 6:40 left in the fourth quarter, and North Central faced a third-and-13 at its own two-yard line shortly thereafter. Dicken, however, kept the hosts' offense on the field with a 24-yard completion toChad O'Kane, and later found Stolzenburg for 14 yards and another third-down conversion. Two straight runs by Tassio netted 17 yards and got the Cardinals into Augustana territory.
On first down from the Vikings' 42, Dicken faked a handoff and raced down the middle of the field untouched, crossing the goal line to complete a nine-play, 95-yard drive which gave the Cardinals some breathing room with just 1:20 to play.
"That drive could be the turning point for the whole season for the offense," Thorne said. "I thought Augustana did a fabulous job. They ran a defense different from what they've been running, and we just had a hard time getting the momentum to swing back."
Facing a two-touchdown deficit, Augustana took to the passing game in an attempt to get back into contention, but Cardinal linebacker Kane Thompson intercepted a pass from Viking quarterback David Lee at the North Central 30-yard line and ran it all the way back to the end zone with just 23 seconds to play, scoring a touchdown for the second consecutive week and ending any hopes of a Viking comeback. The 70-yard return is the third-longest interception return in North Central history.
"Late in the game, they went to a five-wide set and tried to let their good quarterback win the game for them," Thorne pointed out. "We had to make a lot of adjustments on the field, and I thought the kids handled it pretty well. The defense played fantastically this week, just like they did last week against Carthage, and to follow that with a pick-six was really exciting for the crowd and the players."
Dicken finished the day with 205 passing yards, completing 14 of 31 throws. Tassio ran for a game-high 97 yards on 20 attempts, while Kukuc ran 14 times for 80 yards and Joe Antonacci was the team's top receiver with five catches for 56 yards. Shane Dierking, Valente Garza and Joey Michals shared team-high honors in tackles with five each, and Garza also added two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack. The Cardinals owned a 436-163 advantage in total offensive yards and owned more than a 13-minute advantage in time of possession.
North Central plays the first of two straight road games next Saturday, traveling to Millikin University (3-2, 1-1 CCIW) for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Frank M. Lindsay Field.