|It'll be senior vs. senior squaring off for the Little Brass Bell when Wheaton (Ill.) defensive back Corey Kennedy is looking to keep North Central (Ill.) quarterback Broc Rutter in check.
by Jeremy Bonacquisti for Wheaton athletics; by Dan Hunter, d3photography.com
By Joe Sager
Roughly seven miles separate North Central and Wheaton in suburban Chicago.
The Cardinals’ ride back from Saturday’s game at the Thunder’s McCully Stadium will either seem like a blur or an eternity.
That’s because it’s not some regular CCIW game. It’s the Battle for the Little Brass Bell.
The rebirth of a rivalry
The Little Brass Bell has been contested 68 times, but it has taken on new competitiveness since 2005. The teams have split the past 14 meetings where the Bell has been at stake.
2005: North Central 35, Wheaton 26
* Wheaton also won a playoff meeting in 2016 in which the Bell was not at stake.
“The rivalry is really a special one. Kids grow up watching rivalry games and this is a great one,” Wheaton coach Mike Swider said. “Three main reasons make this rivalry special – you have two good teams and the games are competitive; there’s a trophy that’s been passed back and forth and the proximity of the schools. When you put all three of those things together, it makes for an exciting game.”
This marks the 101st meeting between the programs with Wheaton ahead, 54-43-3. The Thunder has a 47-21 edge since the Little Brass Bell was introduced, too. North Central (3-0), ranked No. 5, hopes to topple ninth-ranked Wheaton (3-0) for the first time since 2016.
“This is when you throw out all the records, the past and all the rankings,” Wheaton senior defensive back Corey Kennedy said. “This is what you play football for. We expect a great crowd and an incredibly worthy opponent. It’s a game you want to play every week.”
Despite losing the Battle for the Little Brass Bell the past two seasons, the Cardinals have rebounded to claim a share of the past two CCIW titles.
“It’s as good as it gets in D-III football – a big rivalry game involving two top-10 programs,” North Central coach Jeff Thorne said. “Conference championship ramifications are involved, too. We’re not assuming anything if we win or lose, but the winner of this game has had kind of a leg up in the conference race for the last several years.”
Nevertheless, the game pits two of country’s most-decorated squads, so far. Wheaton leads D-III in total defense and scoring defense (3.3 points per game) and is second in passing yards allowed per game and 15th in rushing defense. North Central ranks first in scoring offense (55.3 ppg), total offense (611.0 yards per game), passing efficiency rating (212.9), pass completion percentage (77.9) and third-down conversion percentage (63.9).
“They’ve had a great start and we have, too. We’re pretty satisfied in how we’re playing. We’re just trying to build on what we’ve done the last few weeks. We’re not there yet,” Kennedy said. “Both teams are going to come out better for having played each other. Seeing how you line up against a great team is fantastic. God willing, we’ll both make the playoffs.”
That actually happened in 2016. The Cardinals beat the Thunder for the Little Brass Bell, but Wheaton knocked North Central out of the playoffs with a second-round triumph.
“Nothing really matters – at this point, you’re not worried about where you are ranked before or after. You go into the game wanting that trophy – the Little Brass Bell,” Swider said. “There’s a healthy respect between both teams, which is nice.”
For North Central quarterback Broc Rutter, he knows all about Wheaton. This game is his fifth start against the Thunder.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s two great teams going at it in a big conference game. We like to try to treat each game the same. We like to keep that mindset,” he said.
In 1839, a New England family headed westward carrying The Bell and settled in DuPage County, Illinois. The Bell became part of the political bickering between Naperville and Wheaton over the location of the DuPage County courthouse.
In 1857, Wheaton began a campaign to assume the leadership of the county and 10 years later officially gained control. However, the city of Naperville refused to turn over the county records.
At 4 a.m. one July morning, according to the DuPage County Guide, Wheaton struck back with a raid on the Naperville courthouse which netted the records in question. From his home opposite the courthouse, Naperville resident Herom H. Cody awoke to see men carrying off armfuls of documents. Before the alarm was sounded, the culprits had fled. The Brass Bell was among the items removed.
At the end of the century, The Bell came into the possession of a farmer living between the two cities whose sons both wanted to attend college. It was agreed that the son who won a coin toss could attend North Central, while the other would go to Wheaton.
Shortly afterwards, the father died and in the division of the estate, the brother attending North Central inherited The Little Brass Bell. Eventually, it became the physical symbol of the rivalry between the two schools.
“Since this is my senior year, this one has a little extra meaning to it,” he admitted. “We want to go out and win every game we play. We feel we have the team that can do that. We want to go out there and prove how good we are. We want to go out and show the country what we’re made of.
“They have a great defense that is tough, physical and fast. We feel we have a great offense,” he continued. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We want to go out and prove to ourselves that we can be a really good team. It’s a big stage to go out and showcase that.”
Wheaton knows the key to victory is containing Rutter, who has produced video game-like stats. He has set program career records for completions (784), passing yards (10,775) and touchdown passes (101) this season. In three games this fall, Rutter has thrown for 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns and ranks first among all D-III quarterbacks in completion percentage (.786), second in yards per pass attempt (11.23) and third in yards per game (367.0) and passing efficiency (211.3).
“He is a very, very good football player. This is his fourth year as their starter and everything revolves around him, as it should,” Swider said. “He’s a smart guy and accurate. He’s good with the football. He understands their offense exceedingly well. He is like Tom Brady. He’s played in a lot of big games. He is good for a reason.
“You’re not going to shut him down or that offense down. You have to control it. You have to do everything you can to hold it down. There’s too much talent and too much coaching to totally shut it down,” he continued. “Our defense is playing really well right now. There are some kids there who have been around who know what they’re doing, too.”
While one side of the ball may grab the headlines for both teams, their balance must not be overlooked.
“They have a lot of weapons on the outside and a couple different quarterbacks who bring different talents to the table. Their offensive line is fantastic. Their running back was gone for a year and is back this year and he is very dynamic,” Thorne said. “They are loaded with talent. Their defense leads the nation. It’s a formidable task like it is every year. This year, they seem to really be doing some great things.”
Likewise, Wheaton knows North Central brings a balanced attack.
“I think we’re both evenly matched. Let’s not forget their defense is pretty stout and we have some versatility on our offense,” Swider said. “You can’t discount that. Both special teams are good. It’s not just offense or defense – you have to be on top of your game in all three areas.”
Overall, the game should be an entertaining one. In the past four meetings, the winning team has scored at least 31 points.
“Both teams know each other so well, but you never know what to expect. That’s what makes it fun,” Rutter said. “We want to go out there and play our game and be able to respond to whatever they throw at us.”