Opening what it hopes to be an extended NCAA Division III playoff run with an impressive show of force, the North Central College football team further edited its own record books as the Cardinals defeated the University of Dubuque, 59-13, in Saturday's first-round game at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
North Central (10-1) leaned heavily on its running game and wound up covering more than 400 yards on the ground, establishing new school records for points (496) and rushing yards (3,175) in a single season. The Cardinals' defense, tasked with slowing down one of the top-rated passing offenses in the nation, did as ordered and tied a single-game school record with eight quarterback sacks.
The Cardinals opened the game attempting to establish the passing game, but three unsuccessful plays led to a punt. Dubuque (9-2) punted on its opening drive as well, setting the hosts up at their own 20-yard line. This time, North Central stuck mainly to the ground game, running seven times in a 80-yard drive that led to the game's first score. A 31-yard run by Nick Kukuc got the Cardinals on the doorstep, and Tyler Dicken kept the ball on an option keeper to score on a four-yard run.
Dubuque answered by taking to the air, throwing 10 times in 14 plays on its next possession. The Spartans drove 71 yards and scored when quarterback Wyatt Hanus threw a 21-yard scoring strike to receiver Michael Zweifel on fourth down. The first quarter ended with the score tied, 7-7.
The teams traded punts early in the second period before the Cardinals scored again to take a lead they would not relinquish. Starting from their own 35, the home team ran eight straight running plays to move down the field and Jordan Tassio scored from six yards out to put North Central back in front again, 14-7. Following another Dubuque punt, Kukuc broke off runs of 11 and 21 yards before Tassio gashed the Spartans' defense for a 34-yard scoring run to boost the advantage to 21-7 with 1:56 left in the half.
The Cardinals forced another punt in the final minute of the first half, and a 30-yard return by Joe Antonacci gave North Central a chance to tack on another score before the break. Dicken threw a 15-yard pass to Bai Kabba to get the hosts into field-goal position, and Nick Dace came on to convert a 41-yard attempt as time ran out.
North Central ended the Spartans' first drive of the second half with two straight quarterback sacks, and an errant Dubuque punt gave the Cardinals the ball at the visitors' 31-yard line. Tassio came through with a three-yard run on fourth down, then ran for another 12 yards on the following play before Kukuc scored from seven yards out. Dubuque continued to experience special-teams difficulties on its next drive, as a fumbled snap on a punt attempt gave North Central the ball just three yards from the goal line. Kukuc needed one carry to get across the goal line again as the Cardinals took a 38-7 lead.
The Spartans put together their final scoring drive of the day on the ensuing possession, as Hanus completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Miles Hookstead. North Central responded by chewing up nearly six minutes in a 10-play, 65-yard drive that culminated in Dicken's four-yard TD pass to Kyle Fiedorowicz.
Dubuque turned the ball over on downs at its own 39 with 7:53 to play, setting up the Cardinals' seventh consecutive score. On fourth down-and-five, wide receiver Ryne Rezac took an option pitch and sprinted 34 yards to the end zone. Cardinal defensive back Jordan Dean intercepted a pass at the North Central 22, and two plays later, Brad Crackel headed left on the option and called his own number for a 73-yard scoring run which wound up being the final score of the afternoon.
The Cardinals wound up with 438 yards of total offense, 411 of which came on the ground. Kukuc gained 131 yards on 13 carries, giving him the second-highest single-season rushing total (1,088 yards) in the history of the North Central program. Kukuc is 60 yards short of the current record of 1,148 yards, which has been held by Bill Shupryt since 1976. Tassio added 121 yards on 14 rushes. Joey Michals led North Central's defense with 10 tackles, while Alex Tripp recorded two of the team's eight quarterback sacks.
Dubuque, which averaged 330 passing yards and 507 total yards per game heading into Saturday's action, was limited to 310 total yards, 261 of which came via the pass. Hanus completed 26 of 42 passes, throwing 13 times to Zweifel for 135 yards. Zweifel was also the Spartans' top tackler with seven total stops.
The Cardinals will take on Wabash College (Ind.) in the second round. The Little GIants defeated Illinois College, 38-20, in Saturday's opening round. The site of the game will be announced by the NCAA on Sunday.