North Central College football advances to fourth straight Stagg Bowl after 34-27 victory over Wartburg

North Central College football celebrates 34-27 semifinal win over Wartburg
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North Central College football is heading back to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for a fourth consecutive season following the team’s thrilling 34-27 victory over Wartburg. The Cardinals moved to 14-0 on the season while overcoming their biggest challenge of the season to date.

Cardinals jump out to early advantage

It looked to be business as usual after NCC jumped out to a 20-0 lead following a Joe Sacco touchdown run and a pair of touchdown passes from Gagliardi Trophy finalist Luke Lehnen to receiver Joey Lombardi. The Cardinal defense held Wartburg to just five yards of total offense in the first quarter.

The second quarter was a back and forth affair, with Hunter Clasen getting the Knights on the board with a one yard run on fourth down. The Cardinals answered with a dazzling play from Lehnen as a ran across the field back and forth to avoid pressure before finding Charles Coleman near the goal line for a seven yard touchdown to put NCC in front 26-7. Wartburg responded quickly with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Nile McLaughlin to Thor Maakestad to make a 26-13 at halftime.

Wartburg hands North Central its first deficit of the season

The Wartburg defense took control in the early portion of the second half, holding the Cardinals scoreless on four consecutive possessions, including an interception from Parker Rochford in the end zone, just the second interception of the season thrown by Lehnen.

The Knights eventually took a 27-26 lead early in the fourth quarter, with Hunter Clasen putting his team in front with an 11-yard run. It was the first time the Cardinals had trailed all season long.

Following another NCC punt, defensive back Zach Orr turned the tide with an interception of a Nile McLaughlin pass to give the ball back to the Cardinals at their own 37 yard line. On the very next play, Lehen found Joey Lombardi down the sideline for a 54-yard pass to the Wartburg nine yard line. Three plays later, Joe Sacco powered into the endzone to put North Central back in front. D’Angelo Hardy ran in the two-point conversion to make it a 34-27 lead with just over five minutes remaining.

The North Central defense stands tall down the stretch

Wartburg then drove inside the NCC ten yard line looking to tie the game, but the Cardinal defense stopped Clasen on fourth and one to end the drive. The Knights had one final chance with no timeouts and two minutes to play, but Zach Orr snuffed out a screen pass to Hunter Clasen on fourth and three to preserve the victory.

Luke Lehnen completed 12 of 19 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Joey Lombardi had two touchdown catches among his four receptions for 161 yards, while Joe Sacco ran for 126 yards and two scores on the ground for the Cardinals. Zach Orr recorded seven tackles, two of them for a loss and an interception.

With the win, North Central advances to Stagg Bowl 50 where the Cardinals will face SUNY-Cortland. The Red Dragons are in the Stagg Bowl for the first time ever following a 42-14 victory over Randolph-Macon in the other semifinal game. The game will be played on Friday night, December 15th, at Salem Stadium in Salem, Virginia. ESPNU will be airing the game live. North Central is 2-1 in the Stagg Bowl all time with a victory over UW-Whitewater in 2019, a defeat to Mary-Hardin Baylor in 2021 and a 28-21 win over Mount Union in 2022.