For fans and other outside observers, North Central football games can start to bleed together due to the combination of offensive firepower and defensive domination. But for Cardinals head coach Brad Spencer and his team, every game brings it’s own lessons, successes, and challenges that they hope will ultimately aid them in once again playing for a national championship.
“Maybe just our opponents’ scores,” Spencer said of what he sees as similar from this year’s eight victories. “Each week is a new game and a new challenge. This week the defense got that historic fourth shutout so we’re super happy for them. Offensively we were efficient. It was a bit of a flip from the week before in time of possession and number of plays… our defense was on the field almost 40 minutes, our offense just 20 minutes, so the word in our meeting rooms Sunday night was ‘efficiency.'”
It is getting to a point where it might be fair to speculate if the Cardinals defense will ever concede a single point again. They’re averaging less than six points allowed per game this season, and haven’t been scored upon in over four hours of game time.
“I hope not!,” Spencer said with a laugh of the prospect of his team never being scored against again. “You can’t lose if you do that. Guys are really stepping up and making plays, some younger kids have had to step in and they’ve done a great job of making plays. Everything’s revolving around our strong defensive line, strong linebacker play, and our defensive backs being opportunistic.”
The four-consecutive shutouts is far from the only recent program record set by the Cardinals, but much of the record-breaking has been done on an individual level. For half the team to work together to achieve something like this does give it some extra meaning due to the number of players who have had to play at a high level to make it happen.
“I think that’s what’s so great about football, and particularly defensive football: if you have one guy to the wrong thing on defense, you’re going to be at risk to give up an explosive play and possibly a touchdown,” said Spencer. “Offensively you can get away with if a guy on the back side does something wrong and you can still get a positive play; on defense you can really get hurt. So it’s great to see all eleven players doing the right thing, to see our coaching staff put guys in a position to succeed and take advantage of the talent that we have.”
As the game progressed, North Park did reach Cardinals territory on several occasions. However, those drives all ended either in turnovers on downs or actual turnovers. All in all, the Cardinals displayed a fantastic ‘bend but don’t break’ attitude.
“You saw it against WashU as well with the two turnovers in the red zone,” Spencer said. “We’d certainly not to like let them in there. Our defense knows we’ve gotta be better on third down. At some point during the game, I said I think our defense is facing third-and-four every single play… Give them credit, they did a good job and had a lot of conversions. But at the end of the day our defense stepped up and made the plays they needed to make to get that fourth shutout.”
The Cardinals began the game without three of their top four receivers, but then soon lost the fourth with an injury to Jacob Paradee. The depletion of options out wide forced an adjustment in offensive approach from the Cardinals, but you wouldn’t know it by the scoreboard.
“We always say ‘next man up’ and that we have to play to the standard,” Spencer said. “Fortunately some younger guys stepped up and did a great job and carried the weight. Of course with our running game and Luke’s ability to run the football we felt that we could stay in our game plan… but it was great to see some guys be able to step in and do the job.”
One thing that the Cardinals didn’t have all their way in their 59-0 win over North Park was running the ball with senior running backs Ethan Greenfield and Terrence Hill, who both gashed the Vikings defense for over 100 yards each last year. But the duo was largely kept in check, which ended up opening up other options like quarterback Luke Lehnen’s running ability.
“Part of that could be some of the guys we had out on the perimeter and them just putting more hats in the box,” Spencer said of a greater defensive focus on the Cardinals running backs. “But as you saw with Luke having over 100 yards on five carries and a few touchdowns, he made them pay and that’s the thing: if it’s not Greeny or T-Hill then it’s Luke. He did a great job of making his reads, being patient, trusting his eyes, and doing what he needs to do for it to open up for some big plays.”
Rory Hills and Jake Lynch both made their first career touchdown receptions in the game, with defensive back Zack Orr joining in with his first career score as well on a pick-six. The variety of difference makers for the Cardinals continues to be impressive, with different names in the headlines every week.
“I’m not surprised,” said Spencer. “We see them every single week in practice… and sometimes in football you just need to wait for the ball to come to you, and we tell our guys just to be ready and that’s what those guys did. Certainly any time a defensive guy can get in the end zone it’s exciting and fun, but give Zack credit it was a heck of a play with a one-handed interception and then he did the rest.”