Faced with a machup against the defending national champions, the North Central College football team had a NCAA Division III heavyweight on the ropes Saturday, but the University of Mount Union Purple Raiders punched back with a late touchdown and ended the Cardinals' banner year with a 41-40 win over North Central in the semifinals of the Division III Football Championship.
Making history by simply taking the field at Mount Union Stadium, the Cardinals (13-1) came within inches of a win over the No. 1-ranked team in the nation and a program which has won 11 Division III national titles.
"We believe we can play with the best teams in the nation," said quarterbackSpencer Stanek, the only North Central signal-caller to start a quarterfinal or semifinal playoff game. "We say that every week and that's our rallying cry in the offseason. It was great to get a chance to play a team like Mount Union, who's been at the top of the Division III level for so many years.
"To come out here and compete with them right up to the last minute of the game, it's just a great experience that we're never going to forget the rest of our lives."
In addition to its opponent, the Cardinals had to contend with a steady snowfall which lasted throughout the game and affected players on both teams' footing all afternoon. The unsteady terrain allowed special-teams returners to elude pursuers and produce big plays, the first of which came on the opening kickoff. North Central's John Skokna weaved through the Raiders' coverage for a 58-yard return, setting the visitors up with a short field at the Mount Union 21-yard line.
Within five plays, North Central made the first of six trips to the end zone, as Stanek lofted a pass to Peter Sorenson on a fade pattern for a three-yard touchdown pass. Mount Union tied the score at 7-7 just four plays later, however, as tailback B.J. Mitchell broke free for a 49-yard run on the first play and quarterback Kevin Burke capped off the drive with a 24-yard run after less than five minutes of play.
Cardinal running back Ryan Kent made the game's next big play, scampering 73 yards to the end zone on the second play of the following drive, but a penalty nullified the score. North Central was able to work its way into field goal range, where a 28-yard kick by Nick Dace nudged the guests back in front, 10-7.
The Raiders (14-0) followed with an eight-play, 59-yard drive and took the lead for the first time on Mitchell's nine-yard run with 3:10 still to go in the first period. The extra-point attempt failed, leaving the score at 13-10. The teams traded punts before North Central pulled ahead once again by traveling 84 yards in 12 plays. After a third straight third-down conversion, the Cardinals got a 17-yard run from Stanek and a 14-yard run from Matt Randolph before Stanek once again found Sorenson for an 11-yard TD with 7:51 left in the first half. The extra-point kick was blocked, but the Cardinals still led, 16-13.
Randolph wound up factoring heavily into the Cardinals' plans after Kent left the game late in the first half due to an injury and did not return. Randolph gained 68 yards and scored three touchdowns on 20 rushing attempts, all of which were career highs.
"Coach (Turner) Pugh, our running backs coach, tells us to always be ready in case a guy goes down," Randolph said. "The offensive line did a great job of opening up holes and creating seams so we could get at least three or four yards every time."
North Central's defense forced a punt on the Raiders' next drive, but Mount Union linebacker Jonathan Gonell intercepted a pass on the following possession and returned it 37 yards to the end zone. It was just the second interception of the season for Stanek and the first in 251 passing attempts. The Raiders' pass rush ended North Central's last drive of the half by forcing a fumble and recovering it 37 yards from another score, but Burke's Hail Mary pass at the end of the half was picked off by Sorenson, who entered the game on defense along with fellow receiver Demarco Tillman to guard against the throw. The Cardinals went into halftime facing a 20-16 deficit despite outgaining the hosts, 225-219.
North Central also had to play the second half without three-time All-Region left tackle Jace Werkheiser, who was injured in the second period and tried to return before sitting out the rest of the day.
"Jace is an amazing player, and it stinks when a good player goes down, but I thought (backup left tackle) John Hosey did a great job today," Stanek said. "I only got pressured once and it was on the last drive."
Mount Union threatened to seize control of the contest on the first drive of the third quarter, eating up more than six minutes in a 13-play, 79-yard drive and pulling ahead, 27-16, on Burke's three-yard TD run. The Cardinals gathered themselves and responded with an extended scoring drive of their own, covering 79 yards in 14 plays and crossing the goal line on Randolph's one-yard run with 3:40 on the clock. Once again, the extra-point attempt was blocked, leaving North Central at a 27-22 disadvantage.
After forcing another Mount Union punt, the Cardinals got another big special-teams return from Shane Dierking, who ran the ball back 48 yards to the Raiders' five-yard line. Three plays later, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Randolph's second one-yard scoring run returned the lead to North Central, 28-27. The Cardinals attempted a two-point conversion and were denied.
Both teams saw their next drive ended on a failed fourth-down conversion attempt. Mount Union dropped back to punt with just over 11 minutes to play, but the snap was mishandled and recovered in the end zone by the Cardinals' Kolton Kuczynskifor a touchdown. For the fourth time, the extra-point attempt was unsuccessful and the visitors owned a 34-27 edge with 11:06 to play.
Sticking exclusively to the ground game, Mount Union constructed a 12-play drive that ventured 65 yards and resulted in a 15-yard touchdown run by reserve tailback Logan Nemeth. Burke ran around left end for the two-point conversion, giving the hosts a slim 35-34 lead with 5:00 to play.
A 32-yard kickoff return by Jordan Dean enabled the Cardinals to open the next possession near midfield. Stanek completed first-down passes of 15 yards to A.J. Thomas and 14 yards to Sorenson to move into striking distance. On second down at the Raiders' 18-yard line, Stanek lofted a pass to the left sideline for Sorenson, who dove, kept a foot in bounds, and secured the 17-yard catch with almost no room to spare. The catch was upheld after an instant-replay review.
"I thought I caught it," said Sorenson, who finished with 119 yards on 10 catches, set a North Central single-season record with 16 TD receptions and became the second Cardinal wideout to top 1,000 yards receiving in a single year (1,109). "My defender was in man coverage, so I knew if I could get to his outside and get positioning I could get open, and Spencer made a great throw."
Randolph found the end zone for the third time on the next play, and once again Mount Union stuffed the two-point conversion attempt. With 1:38 to play, the Cardinals owned a 40-35 advantage.
Having focused most of its efforts on the running game throughout the second half, the Raiders took to the air on their final drive with devastating effect. Burke hit Nemeth for 20 yards and Luc Meacham for 19 before delivering a 26-yard TD pass to Mike Collichio wih 1:07 still on the clock. North Central was able to deny Mount Union's two-point conversion.
Stanek completed a pair of first-down passes to Sorenson before the Cardinals came up empty on four straight throws at the Mount Union 30-yard line to surrender possession.
Stanek finished the game 19 of 37 passing for 198 yards and ran for 61 yards on 11 carries. He finished the season having established new North Central records for completions (264), yards (3,495), touchdowns (43) and completion percentage (71.0).
Cardinal linebacker Nick Slezak totaled 21 tackles, establishing a new North Central single-game record, while defensive end John Focosi put up 2.5 tackles for loss.
Burke completed 12 of 19 passes for 163 yards and ran 28 times for 131. Mitchell also hit the 100-yard mark, covering 124 yards on 19 carries. Gonnell was the Raiders' top tackler with 13 total stops.
The loss brought an end to the careers of a North Central senior class which compiled 44 wins in 50 games over the past four years and were part of the Cardinals' first two advancements past the second round of the postseason.
"We're really proud of these seniors," said Cardinal head coach John Thorne. "They're fabulous students, they're great men and they're pretty darn good football players, so we're going to mis them a lot."