A matchup many thought sure to be a down-to-the-wire affair had most of the drama removed by the North Central College football team on Saturday, as the sixth-ranked Cardinals took control early on and blanked the 13th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan University Titans, 24-0, putting a damper on the Titans' Homecoming festivities and taking sole possession of first place in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin standings.
The Cardinals (6-1, 4-0 CCIW) have now held three of their first four conference opponents without a touchdown and have two shutouts in conference play for the first time since 1965, when North Central posted back-to-back shutouts of North Park University and Millikin University. Illinois Wesleyan (6-1, 3-1), meanwhile, suffered its first shutout at home since a 21-0 loss to Augustana College in 1990.
North Central was able to overcome a festive atmosphere and a noisy crowd to punch the ball into the end zone on the game's opening drive. The Cardinals marched 58 yards in nine plays and wound up scoring on a two-yard run by Jordan Tassio. Quarterback Tyler Dicken completed 3 of 3 passes for 31 yards during the possession, also running once for nine yards.
The Cardinals doubled their lead in the second quarter, aided by a pass interference penalty on third down-and-long which gave North Central's offene new life at its own 33-yard line. Two plays later, Dicken threw deep to Bai Kabba for a 46-yard completion to advance the visitors to the Titans' 20-yard line. Dicken wound up capping off the 11-play, 82-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown pass toAlex Haan with 4:55 to play in the second quarter.
North Central took possession following a Titan punt at its own 30 with just 35 seconds left before halftime. A pair of 15-yard IWU penalties helped move the Cardinals into field-goal range, and a 44-yard kick by Nick Dace split the uprights to give North Central a 17-0 advantage just before halftime.
The Cardinals were forced to punt on their first possession of the second half, butTyler Rasche booted the ball 63 yards to pin the Titans at their own five-yard line. IWU advanced to near midfield before Cardinal linebacker Joey Michalsintercepted a pass from IWU quarterback Rob Gallik. Michals, an All-CCIW hurdler during the most recent indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, leaped over a would-be Titan tackler and sprinted to the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown return, boosting the Cardinals' lead to 24-0 with 7:48 left in the third period.
The Titans threatened to score on their next possession, but Josh Mitchell picked off Gallik's pass in the end zone. The final IWU drive also ended with the ball in the hands of a North Central defender, as Stewart Charles collected the Cardinals' third interception of the day with 5:21 remaining.
The Cardinals wound up outgaining IWU, 334-215, owning a 199-61 advantage in rushing yards and a 33:08-26:52 edge in time of possession. Nick Kukuc ran 19 times for a season-high 127 yards, while Dicken completed 11 of 20 passes for 135 yards and Haan made a team-high four catches for 30 yards. Michales, Shane Dierking and Kane Thompson shared the team lead in tackles (6) and Willie Hayes totaled two tackles for loss.
Gallik completed 18 of 39 passes for 154 yards for the Titans, while Joe Musso caught seven passes for 45 yards and Cameron Blossom gained 41 yards on 10 rushing attempts. IWU linebacker Ryan Gresko made a game-high 16 tackles.
The Cardinals play the first of three straight home games next Saturday, hosting Elmhurst College (4-3, 2-2). Kickoff at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m.