Naperville, Ill. - The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse football team opened its 2012 season with a 21-17 victory at sixth-ranked North Central College (Ill.) Saturday afternoon at Benedetti-Whrli Stadium. The Cardinals, also playing their season-opener, entered the game ranked sixth on the D3football.com Top-25 Poll.
In the first-ever meeting between the two teams, North Central took a 7-0 lead with 5:37 remaining in the first quarter as Spencer Stanek threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Peter Sorenson. Nick Dace converted the extra-point attempt. The Cardinals went 24 yards on four plays after an Eagles' fumble.
The Eagles tied the game at 7-7 with 7:45 left in the second quarter after Brandon Heeg returned a Stanek fumble 57-yards for a touchdown after he was sacked byNick Berg. Adam Pannier's extra-point tied the game.
The game remained tied 7-7 at halftime.
UW-L was forced to punt after the first possession of the second half and North Central quickly took a 14-7 lead on Nick Kukuc's 47-yard touchdown run with 12:41 left in the third quarter. The Cardinals went 51 yards in two plays and Dace converted the extra-point.
The Eagles later forced a Cardinals' punt in the period and tied the game at 14-14 with 9:22 remaining in the third as Jared Stan scored on a 54-yard run. The Eagles went 68 yards in two plays on the game-tying drive with Pannier making the extra-point to tie the game.
North Central took a 17-14 lead with 1:08 remaining in the third on Dace's 23-yard field goal attempt. The Cardinals used 14 plays to go 79 yards.
Forced to punt early in the fourth quarter, UW-L turned to its defense for the lead. Stanek was intercepted by Jacob Flegner, who returned the throw 39 yards for a touchdown and give the Eagles a 21-17 advantage with 13:20 left. Pannier converted on his third extra-point game of the game.
On the ensuing possession, North Central drove to the UW-L 18-yard line before Jordan Tassio's fumble was recovered by the Eagles' Heeg. UW-L was forced to punt on its next drive and North Centrals' Josh Mitchell returned the kick 47 yards to the UW-L 35-yard line. The Eagles' defense forced another turnover as Jay Wussow forced a fumble at the 10-yard line with Lucas Schmitz' returning it nine yards with 6:47 remaining.
UW-L took the ball to its own 40-yard before Christian Hallingstad punted the ball down to the North Central 17-yard line. After completing three of four passes to take the Cardinals to the Eagles' 43-yard line, Stanek was intercepted by Jake Meckstroth with 1:42 left.
After three running plays, Hallingstad hit a 51-yard punt out-of-bounds to the North Central two-yard line with :36 left. Stanek was intercepted two plays later by Jack Leahy at the Cardinals' 32-yard line with :16 remaining.
UW-L finished with 206 yards of offense Saturday, including 139 rushing and 67 passing. The Eagles finished with 10 first downs and were four-of-15 on third-down. Ben Hertrampf had a team-high 78 yards rushing while Stan totaled 70 yards and one touchdown. Andy Sires finished nine-of-14 passing for 67 yards. He was sacked three times. Tony Bilderback caught four passes for 35 yards.
North Central totaled 392 yards, including 202 rushing and 190 passing. The Cardinals finished with 25 first downs and were six-of-15 on third-down. Tassio had 30 yards rushing while Stanek was 16-of-34 passing for 171 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked twice.
UW-L forced six North Central turnovers, three fumbles and three interceptions, while the Eagles had one fumble.
Meckstroth and Max Nicholson led UW-L with nine tackles each while Leahy finished with eight and Wussow six. Berg had both of the Eagles' sacks.
Hallingstad, a preseason D3football.com All-America selection, averaged 46.2 yards on nine punts. He had a long of 62 yards with four over 50-yards. Hallingstad had three punts inside the 20-yard line.
Joey Michals led North Central's defense with 12 tackles while Shane Dierking and Adam Szudarski each had eight.
UW-L returns to action Thursday, September 6 at NCAA Division II Northern Michigan University. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. (Central) in Marquette, Michigan.