Brad Spencer on His First Playoff Win and a Dominant Defensive Performance
In a year that began with a string of milestone victories, North Central head coach Brad Spencer now has another: his first career playoff victory. The win was highlighted by a record-setting day for the Cardinals defense, which allowed just 64 total yards by the Lake Forest offense, who failed to cross midfield once.
“When you have those kinds of numbers, just about everything [stands out],” said Spencer. “The entire game I thought we played nice complementary football all game, and the defense stepped up right away especially after that first drive where we didn’t points; to come out and stop them quickly and get the offense the ball back was really important.”
One of the players who’s repeatedly stepped up on defense this year is junior safety Julian Bell, who had to unfortunately leave the game due to injury after a collision with Foresters’ tight end Alan Hanson. In Bell’s place, sophomore Will Vernon and freshman Jake Brock both rose to the occasion, particularly Brock who grabbed an interception on his first play of the day.
“Both those guys did a great job, and they’re both familiar with playing time,” Spencer said, a benefit of the second-team defense getting so may reps this season. “They’ve both started games, played a lot of football, it’s not Jake’s first interception. Great to see that, great to see them step up, and in football that’s what you have to do.”
The Cardinals defense notched their fifth shutout of the season, and grew their streak of games without allowing a touchdown to seven. But it’s just the second time in program history the Cardinals have shutout an opponent in the postseason, which underscores just how impressive Saturday’s display was.
“I think the guys just enjoy it,” said Spencer of the defense. “Every game you just want to win and move on, but to play at that level and to play to our standard week-in and week-out really says a lot about the players and coaching staff on defense and what they’re doing right now: putting guys in positions to succeed, to win, and to make plays.”
Offense: Pretty Good Too!
Offensively, it wasn’t too bad a day either with seven touchdowns scored. Sophomore quarterback Luke Lehnen had a had (or feet) in five of them, throwing for three and rushing for two more. Of all his strong performances this season, this may have been the one where he looked most in command and control of the offense.
“He’s had a couple of games like that where I think he’s just seeing things [well] and making plays,” Spencer said. “He did a great job, even made some broken plays into great plays including both of his rushing touchdowns. He’s a veteran: third year at school, second year on the football field for us so we go into most weeks pretty confident that he knows what he’s looking at. And then from there it’s just executing, managing the game, and delivering the football where we need to.”
Two of Lehnen’s three passing touchdowns were milestones: junior tight end Matt Robinson caught his first of the season and first since last year’s semifinal win at Mount Union, and Alec Wolff made his first ever touchdown catch in what will be one of his final games as a fifth year senior. Both scores were greeted with massive celebrations by their teammates.
“You can really see how much it meant to the entire offense and the entire team,” said Spencer. “They really love those two. In a lot of ways their an extension of our offensive line. They don’t get a lot of touches, but they work their butts off every single day. They’re a big part of what we’ve been able to do on the ground this year. So to be able to get them open and have Luke deliver the football to them, you can see how excited the guys were and our coaching staff was really excited for them as well.”
The third touchdown pass, actually the first of the game, went to junior wide receiver DeAngelo Hardy for his 13th touchdown reception of the year. He battle through double-coverage to secure the football, which was characteristic of his entire 7-catch performance as the Foresters defense had no answers for him.
“You can give him the ball in a lot of different ways whether it’s a hand-off, a pitch, a flare or something down field,” said Spencer. “He’s an explosive football player, he seems to get better every single week. It’s been a lot of fun to see his growth this year with the departure of so many seniors last year. He’s really stepped up in a big way in our biggest games and that’s what your best players do.”
Cardinals Sweep All-CCIW Awards
Last week, it was announced that 19 Cardinals football players were named to the All CCIW First and Second Teams for this season. Additionally, senior running back Ethan Greenfield was named CCIW Offensive Player of the Year, junior defensive tackle Dan Lester was named CCIW Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Jeske Maples took home the CCIW Offensive Lineman of the Year award to maintain the Cardinals sole possession of that honor, and Spencer himself was named CCIW Coach of the Year.
“First of all for me, [Coach of the Year] is a team award and our staff deserves it,” Spencer said, deflecting credit and ownership of the honor. “So it was great to see that, they’ve done a great job every single week putting together gameplans in all three phases and asking our guys to do things they can do. In terms of our players, they absolutely deserve it. If you look at where we’re at statistically in the conference, I think it matches how many guys got named [All-CCIW]. It’s not exactly what our guys care most about; they just want to win football games and keeping playing with each other and having a lot of fun. At the end of the day it’s great to have those honors for those guys, but now they’re just really focused on the playoffs and continuing to play. They want a championship ring more than they want a plaque.”
In the second round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship, the Cardinals will take on Carnegie Mellon after the Tartans defeated Depauw 45-14. It’s a bit of a full-circle moment, after the two teams were scheduled to meet in the first round of last year’s playoffs before a COVID-19 outbreak among Carnegie Mellon players and staff saw the game canceled. The result is a matchup a year in the making.
“You definitely pull out everything that you looked at last year in terms of analysis, data and film,” said Spencer of his staff’s preparations for this week. “They’re a very good football team, they’ve got a new head coach this year but the rest of the staff all remained so there’s some similarities in what they’re doing. They’re having a great season so we’ve gotta be on our A-game and ready to go this weekend.”