A first-half scoring surge left the North Central College football team playing catch-up most of the afternoon in the second round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship at Titan Stadium Saturday, as the Cardinals scrambled to get back into contention before running out of time in a 42-21 loss to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
The Cardinals led early before Oshkosh (12-0) put up 35 unanswered points in the first half to seize control of the contest and take a lead it would not relinquish.
"I'm disappointed with what the scoreboard read at the end of the game, we unraveled a little bit in the first half, but words can't describe how proud I am of our team and how our guys fought," said North Central head coach Jeff Thorne. "(Oshkosh) is a great football team. I have tremendous respect for them and their whole organization."
After forcing a punt on the game's first possession, the Cardinals drove 73 yards in eight plays and went up, 7-0, after Broc Rutter pitched to Zane Lodico on an option play for a one-yard touchdown run.
The Titans countered with a 21-yard scoring pass from Brett Kasper to Dom Todarello on the ensuing drive, which was the first of five straight Oshkosh possessions to conclude in the end zone. The hosts owned a 298-64 advantage in total offensive yards at halftime.
Oshkosh added another score midway through the third period to extend the lead to 42-7, but missed a field goal late in the quarter and Broc Rutter completed four straight passes to move the Cardinals down the field before Lodico ran for a 13-yard score on the first play of the fourth period.
"It's hard to come back from that (deficit)," said North Central defensive back Matt Sutherland, who finished with a career-high 10 tackles. "We, in the locker room, thought we could come back. Some things didn't go our way, and that happens, but everyone fought until the end. That's all you can ask from your teammates."
North Central's Jalen Dennis recovered an onside kick after Lodico's second score and the Cardinals drove to the end zone again, as Rutter connected with Michael Sfikas on a two-yard TD pass with 10:46 to play. Linebacker Hunter LaDuke recovered a fumble on the Titans' next play from scrimmage, but the Oshkosh defense held its ground and did not allow any further scoring.
"(Down 42-7), our guys could have thrown in the towel, but they didn't do that. That's not who we are, and that's what I'm going to remember about the game. There were opportunities in the fourth quarter deep in their territory, and if we close out on those, it's a closer game."
Rutter finished the game 20 of 37 passing for 238 yards, finding Sfikas nine times for 131 yards and Andrew Kamienski eight times for 82 yards. Lodico ran for 64 yards on 18 carries, while Dominick Muoghalu gained 59 yards on 14 attempts. DJ Warkenthien tied Sutherland for the team lead in tackles.
North Central finishes the season with an overall record of 10-2.