Treating its Homecoming crowd to its most prosperous all-around performance of the season thus far, the North Central College football team throttled the Illinois Wesleyan University Titans, 52-0, on Saturday at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium to post its seventh staright victory and remain unbeaten in College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) play.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals (7-1, 5-0 CCIW) posted their first shutout of the season and their second-highest single-game scoring total of the campaign. The win was also North Central's second straight shutout of the Titans (6-2, 3-2); the Cardinals posted a 24-0 win at Illinois Wesleyan last season. North Central has now won 21 straight CCIW games and the last 20 by 20 points or more.
"We've been waiting for this week, as well as next week's game against Wheaton, all year because we knew they were going to be really great teams," said the Cardinals' head coach, John Thorne. "We just had to keep going through the process to get to them and hope we stayed healthy. You could really tell this was a championship-type football game and it's time to play our best football.
"We started out lightning-fast, and hopefully that's the way we're ready to play the rest of the year. Offense, defense, and special teams, there were not a lot of mistakes."
North Central scored on each of its first six first-half possessions, needing just two plays to open the scoring on a 60-yard touchdown run by Nick Kukuc. After forcing a Titan punt, the Cardinals took over again near midfield and doubled their lead five plays later. Spencer Stanek completed an 18-yard pass to A.J. Thomas, leaving North Central a yard away from the goal line, and Jordan Tassio ran in on the next play for a 14-0 advantage with 11:06 still remaining in the opening period.
Josh Mitchell returned a short IWU punt to the Titans' 28-yard line to open North Central's third scoring drive of the first quarter, and four plays later, Kukuc took an option pitch from Tassio for a two-yard TD run.
"We stress every week to score on the first drive," said Kukuc, who ran for a season-high 131 yards on just 13 carries. "In the weeks past, we have been able to do that. You could tell on the first drive the way the offensive line got that push, it was incredible."
The Cardinals opened their longest drive of the day near the end of the first period on their own five-yard line and visited the end zone once again nine plays later. The final 55 yards were covered in two plays, as Stanek fired a 24-yard pass to Chad O'Kane bfore finding Halaiano Fuentes for a 31-yard touchdown. North Central tacked on a fifth TD of the half with 7:24 on the clock, as Stanek capped off a 12-play, 52-yard drive with a seven-yard TD toss to Peter Sorenson, and Nick Daceadded a 38-yard field goal just before time expired to send the hosts into halftime with a gargantuan 38-0 advantage.
North Central's final offensive touchdown was a two-yard pass from Stanek to Thomas late in the third period, and linebacker Joey Michals notched the game's final score, intercepting a pass from Illinois Wesleyan quarterback Tyler Hook and returning it 39 yards to the end zone. Michals also returned an interception for a touchdown in last season's game against the Titans.
"The defensive line put pressure on him and everyone else was in coverage," Michals said. "It just came to me and everyone was blocking, so getting to the end zone was easy. I owe that to my teammates and my coaches."
The Cardinals finished with a total of 477 yards while allowing only 187. Stanek completed 17 of 25 passes for 226 yards, as Chad O'Kane caught four passes for 61 yards and Ryne Rezac gained 36 yards on four grabs. Oshayne Brown, who came on in the fourth quarter in relief of Kukuc, gained 60 yards on just six carries.
North Central's defense conspired to make life miserable for Titan freshman quarterback Tyler Hook, who was making his first collegiate start. Hook completed 16 of 40 passes for 130 yards, throwing three interceptions and being sacked five times. Quinn Haas recorded six tackles and broke up three passes for the Cardinals, while Josh Beveridge registered 2.5 quarterback sacks.
"We planned all week on being dominant," Michals said. "That's our mindset going into every game. Our coaches did a great job, like they do every week, putting us in position to win and be dominant like we were today."
The Cardinals host Wheaton College (6-2, 4-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m., with Senior Day festivities to be observed prior to kickoff. North Central will have the opportunity to clinch at least a share of its seventh straight CCIW title.
"It will be a pretty huge game next Saturday," Thorne said. "We love playing Wheaton. It is always a fun, exciting atmosphere, but this one is really, really huge for us, the most important we've had."