Return Game Dazzles as North Central Clinches Playoff Bid
Getting a huge boost from its punt-return unit and another stout effort from its defense, the North Central College football team secured a share of a seventh straight College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) championship and a third straight berth in the NCAA Division III Football Championship with a 37-6 victory over the Augustana College Vikings at Ericson Field.
The Cardinals (8-2, 6-1 CCIW) share this year's CCIW title with Wheaton College and Elmhurst College and receive the CCIW's automatic bid to the postseason based on the point-differential tiebreaker. North Central has won or shared the conference championship each year since 2006.
The Cardinals operated with a short field most of the day due to the efforts of cornerback Josh Mitchell, who returned six punts for 224 yards, an average of 37.3 yards per return. Five of North Central's six scoring drives covered 35 yards or less and Mitchell also accounted for the Cardinals' first score of the day, returning Augustana's first punt 80 yards to the end zone. He matched the second-longest punt return in North Central history.
Augustana (5-5, 4-3 CCIW) got on the board when kicker Brady Rogers made a 25-yard field goal on the ensuing drive. Viking linebacker Bo Goshorn intercepted a pass on the first play of North Central's next possession, but the hosts were limited to a 41-yard field goal by Rogers and still trailed, 7-6.
North Central put together its longest scoring drive of the day early in the second period, traveling 73 yards in 12 plays. The Cardinals ran the ball on 10 plays during the possession but scored on a pass, as Spencer Stanek found Chad O'Kane for a 13-yard strike and O'Kane's first TD of the season.
A 35-yard punt return by Mitchell set the Cardinals up for its next score. Five plays later, Nick Dace connected on a 31-yard field-goal attempt, boosting North Central's lead to 17-6. The Cardinals' defense forced a quick Augustana punt before the end of the half, and a 29-yard return by Mitchell, coupled with a Viking personal-foul penalty, allowed Dace to come on for a 37-yard field goal just before time ran out and sent the Cardinals into the break with a 20-6 advantage.
A short Augustana punt gave the Cardinals the ball at the Vikings' 40 late in the third quarter, and Dace converted his third field goal of the day, a 24-yarder. Mitchell picked up 25 yards on his next punt return to open North Central's next possession at the Vikings' 35-yard line. Stanek's 23-yard pass to O'Kane set up a first-and-goal opportunity at the 10-yard line, and Nick Kukuc ran in from five yards out three plays later to tie a North Central record with his 14th rushing touchdown of the year.
The final scoring drive of the day got its start from the Cardinals' defense, as defensive tackle Peter Mann intercepted quarterback Nick Welch's pass and got the offense onto the field 24 yards from the end zone. Stanek threw a 13-yard scoring pass to Jeff Stolzenburg with 8:27 to play.
Stanek completed 13 of 19 passes for 139 yards, throwing five times to O'Kane for 74 yards. Kukuc gained 84 yards on 21 rushing attempts, boosting his season total to 1,009 rushing yards and making him just the second player in North Central history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
The Cardinals' defense held Augustana to 161 yards of total offense, the lowest amount by a North Central opponent this season and the ninth-lowest in school history, and recorded a season-high 13 tackles for loss. Quinn Haas led the Cardinals with nine tackles, while Joey Michals and Alex Pirela each recorded six.John Focosi led the way with three tackles for loss and two sacks.
Pairings and sites for the first round of the 2012 Division III Football Championship will be announced on Sunday at 5 p.m. at ncaa.com.