North Central College football waited twelve long months for another chance to face Mary Hardin-Baylor. After falling 57-24 in the Division III National Championship game to the Cru in 2021, North Central exacted revenge in the semifinal matchup on a misty Saturday afternoon in Naperville.
Cardinals Get off to Red Hot Start
The Cardinals could not have asked for a better start as Luke Lehnen found Alec Wolff in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass on third down to put NCC up 7-0 on their opening drive of the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Joe Sacco recovered the short kickoff from Tanner Raines, giving North Central the ball deep in UMHB territory. Ethan Greenfield then plunged into the end zone from seven yards out to put the Cardinals on top 14-0 before the Crusader offense had a chance to take the field.
Mary Hardin-Baylor Gets Back in the Game
But Mary Hardin-Baylor showed why they were the defending Stagg Bowl champions. Quarterback Kyle King connected on touchdown passes to 6’6 wide receiver Brandon Jordan in back to back drives, sandwiched around a North Central touchdown pass from Lehnen to Matt Quinn. That made the score 21-14 NCC with just over six minutes to play in the first half.
The Crusaders were able to move the ball late in the second quarter inside the North Central ten yard line, but the Cardinal defense stood tall, forcing a field goal attempt. In a momentum shifting play, the NCC defense burst through the line as Brandon Greifelt blocked the kick, preserving the 21-14 lead heading into halftime.
North Central Seizes Control in Third Quarter
On the third play of the second half, North Central defensive back Sam Taviani stepped in front of a Kyle King pass, giving the ball back to the Cardinal offense.
“At first we wanted to prevent the explosive play. That was what we were preaching all week,” Sam Taviani said after the game. “We want to limit the explosive because last year they got a ton of those. So this year our focus was to limit the explosive plays and then our pressure was hitting home today because our D-line did a fantastic job up front, dominating in there, man.”
Luke Lehnen drove the offense down the field before connecting with D’Angelo Hardy for his third touchdown pass of the game. The 28-yard strike put NCC up 28-14.
“One of the big things we were preaching all week was turnovers. Last year we had five turnovers against them. Four of them were my fault,” said Luke Lehnen. “In this game, my focus was, I’m not going to give them the ball because that’s what they’ve been driving off of this whole season.”
On the ensuing UMHB drive, the North Central defense again came up with a big stop, forcing an incompletion on 4th down at the Cardinal 23-yard line. A nine play, 77 yard drive capped off by Ethan Greenfield’s second touchdown of the day and 25th of the season gave the home team a 35-14 lead in front of the biggest crowd of the season.
“I kept thinking about people who played before me, like Andrew Kamienski and Blake Williams and Ben Wong, and then those are the people who I thought about the look in their eyes and the way that they felt after losing,” Ethan Greenfield said. “That was something that really kind of motivated me personally. I know a lot of other people to avoid that, and I remember after going up, I think when we put up 35, I kept going, “Remember last year? Remember last year? Remember last year?” Just to kind of make sure that everyone doesn’t let up on that gas.”
The Cardinal defense was able to keep the high powered Crusader offense in check as Antwain Walker intercepted a Kyle King pass along the sidelines late in the third quarter that was intended for Brandon Jordan. Jordan was then called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with his frustration boiling over as the game was slipping away.
“Antwain and the others in the secondary, Jahron, they made plays,” said North Central head football coach Brad Spencer. “You know, last year it was the opposite. You know, last year those 50/50 balls seemed like 90/10 balls. They were making the plays and you saw it a little bit in the first half in certain moments, certain segments. But for the most part, we won those battles and that was one of our keys.”
Cards go on Cruise Control in Fourth Quarter
Luke Lehnen put the exclamation point on his fantastic day midway through the fourth quarter with a 23-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Nic Rummell. The fourth touchdown pass for the sophomore signal caller gave the Cardinals a 42-14 advantage as the rout was on. Senior running back Terrance Hill capped off the scoring in the game with a 12-yard TD run as North Central College punched its ticket to the Stagg Bowl for a third consecutive season after a 49-14 victory.
Lehnen finished the game with 174 yards through the air and another 139 on the ground to go with his four TD passes. Ethan Greenfield ran for a pair of scores and 127 yards on 23 attempts. The Cardinal defense shut out Mary Hardn-Baylor in the second half as Sam Taviani added four tackles for loss and a sack to go along with his interception.
In the end, the work put in by the North Central coaches and players proved to be worth the effort as the Cardinals flipped the script on the Crusaders and move on to a third straight National Championship game appearance.
“You look at almost 365 days ago. I think it’s 358,” said Spencer. “The results that we’ve been sitting on and thinking about and thinking about it every Friday and work out and every spring ball practice and every camp practice, and to come back and finish the way that we did today.”
North Central football advances to face Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl which will be played in Annapolis, Maryland on Friday, December 16th. Mount Union defeated Wartburg 34-31 in the other semifinal. This will be the third consecutive post season that North Central and Mount Union have played each other, with the Cardinals emerging victorious in 2019 and 2021.
“Just really proud of our guys, really proud of our our coaching staff. Just great atmosphere here today. So, you know, thanks to all the alums and people in Naperville and administrators for being here to support us. It was really a lot of fun. And I’m glad that our first semifinal game that we’ve ever hosted here could turn out this way,” added Coach Spencer.
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