Passing its first postseason test with flying colors, the North Central College football team encountered little resistance at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium on Saturday as it hammered Hanover College (Indiana), 52-0, in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals (10-1) played brilliantly in all phases of the game, owning a 24-0 lead before the first quarter was through, forcing four turnovers and blocking their first punt of the season as they won their 10th straight first-round playoff game. North Central posted its fourth shutout victory of the campaign as well, doing so for the first time since the creation of Division III in 1973.
"I'm pleased to have our first-round game behind us, and to have played as well as we did," said North Central head coach Jeff Thorne. "I was really happy with the way we got started offensively, and our defense was just spectacular. We're excited to be moving on, and we're looking forward to next Saturday."
The Cardinals wasted little time opening the day's scoring, as Broc Rutter uncorked a 42-yard completion to Andrew Kamienski to put the hosts into the red zone before handing off twice to Dominick Muoghalu, who scored from five yards out less than two minutes into the contest. After safety Matt Sutherland intercepted a Hanover pass and returned it 42 yards to the Panthers' eight-yard line, kicker Derik Judka tacked on a 20-yard field goal to increase the lead to 10-0.
Sutherland came up big on the ensuing possession as well, picking off another pass and returning it 24 yards to the Hanover three-yard line. Muoghalu scored again on the next play, eventually finishing with 58 yards on 14 carries in his first time carrying the ball in nearly a month.
"Everything worked out today exactly how I wanted it to go," he said. "Our offense was clicking on all cylinders. Getting back in the end zone is the best feeling in the world. I made a promise to myself I would do that at least one time today, just to make sure everyone knows I'm still here and I'm still pushing. We're still standing and we're ready to go, no matter who we face."
After a Panther punt, Rutter delivered a 32-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Kamienski to extend the lead to 24-0 with 2:47 still to play in the first period. Dan Gilroy ended the next Hanover possession with a quarterback sack on fourth down on the final play of the opening quarter. Four plays later, Rutter scrambled to his right and, seeing nothing but open field, outran the Panthers' defenders for a 43-yard touchdown, easily outdistancing his previous career-long run of 17 yards.
"That was a great play by Broc," Thorne said. "He's really an effective runner. He doesn't do it often, but for a pocket passer, he does a great job of stealing yards when other teams aren't accounting for him."
Ethan Greenfield took the lead role in North Central's final scoring drive of the first half, contributing a 20-yard reception and a 23-yard run before scoring from eight yards away. The Panthers (7-4) made one final attempt to crack the scoreboard before halftime, but once again Sutherland foiled their plans, intercepting yet another pass at the Cardinals' 17-yard line. With three interceptions on the day, Sutherland tied the North Central single-game record which had been achieved four previous times, most recently by Mark McClowry against Elmhurst College on Oct. 9, 1999.
"On all those interceptions, our defense got hands on the ball, and I was just there," Sutherland said. "Our coaches preach pursuing to the football, and I was just doing my job while other guys were doing their job. It wasn't just me, our whole defense got involved in those plays."
The hosts kicked off to begin the second half, but took possession just one play later as Talha Ayhan pounced on a fumble. Greenfield scored from 17 yards away soon thereafter, extending the lead to 45-0. The Cardinals tacked on one final score with 7:40 left in the third period, as Terrence Hill capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive with a six-yard scoring run.
North Central owned a 482-166 advantage in total yards, gaining 334 in the first half and allowing just 31 after halftime. Rutter completed 14 of 23 passes for 200 yards, finding Kamienski five times for 107 yards, while Greenfield was the Cardinals' top ground gainer with 62 yards on just six carries. Adam Maluchnik wound up as North Central's leading tackler with seven total stops, while Sutherland, Gilroy and Lane Brinkman each finished with four and Dakota Cremeens blocked the Panthers' first punt of the afternoon.
The Cardinals advance to take on 11th-ranked Bethel University (Minnesota) in the second round next Saturday at noon, with the site of the game to be announced on Sunday. The Royals (10-1) defeated Wartburg College (Iowa), 44-14, in the first round. The two teams last faced each other in the national quarterfinals in 2013, with North Central recording a 41-17 victory on Bethel's home field.