Head Coach Brad Spencer on His Team Overcoming a Tough Challenge
In what was their toughest test since facing Wheaton almost two months ago, the North Central football team was able to persevere against Carnegie Mellon’s stout defense as Brad Spencer and his team advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III Football Championship with a 28-7 victory. Spencer has said his team is just happy to still be playing football, and that’s particularly true after the character they showed on Saturday.
“We felt Carnegie Mellon was a good football team and would be a tough test, and that turned out to be the case,” said Spencer. “The guys played good football, good team football winning the turnover battle and time of possession. The defense showed up again, set another school record, and continued to do what they’ve been doing the last two months. Our offense was able to pull off a couple of big plays and get just enough done to get points on the board to win and advance.”
Uncharacteristically, the Cardinals offense struggle to get going. They were shutout in the first quarter for the first time all season, and senior running back Ethan Greenfield was held to less than two yards per carry in the first half.
“We knew they were gonna be a stout defense and they pride themselves on turnovers and stopping the run,” Spencer said of North Central’s expectations. “They did a good job of mixing up what they were giving us and it took us a little while to figure out where we could poke and prod and find some openings. Fortunately, we were able to do that and make some big plays. Luke [Lehnen] did a nice job of making plays in the passing game and also using his legs, and then got some stuff figured out… They did everything we thought they would do and it just took us a little bit longer than we would have hoped for to get going”
The one thing that did seem to be working for the Cardinals offense were runs, designed or otherwise, by sophomore quarterback Luke Lehnen. This despite the fact that an almost every play, the Carnegie Mellon defense had an assigned ‘spy’ following his every move.
“Part of it is catching them in the right front, blitz, or coverage,” Spencer said of Lehnen being able to find the space to make plays. “Luke certainly is dangerous with his legs, and if we have a one-on-one matchup with him we certainly feel positive about that and it turned out he was able to take advantage of that.”
In addition to Lehnen making plays, things were opened up further as the Cardinals were able to get the ball in the hands of junior wide receiver DeAngelo Hardy, particularly on their first touchdown of the day and a long pass pay on the following offensive series. The responsibility given to Hardy has only grown over the course of the season due to injuries to other receivers, but he’s not struggling under the weight of it.
“He’s in his fourth year in the offense, so he certainly understands the offense and has certainly made a lot strides in the last year and a half/two years in understanding defenses,” said Spencer of Hardy. “We’re able to get into meetings with him on Tuesday, show him the film, show him what we want to do and the different ways we want to use him. His answer is usually ‘yep, makes sense, thanks coach’ and fortunately he’s able to handle it. And you saw on Saturday once we were able to get the football in his hands whether it was throwing it, tossing it, or handing it off things started to open up a little bit.”
While the offense was slowly improving, the two plays that felt like the largest swings in momentum where both on defense. Senior defensive end Tyler Rich recorded two strip-sacks on the day, with both recovered by junior defensive tackle Dan Lester including one inside the Tartans’ five yard line which was quickly converted into a touchdown.
“We were saying on the sideline, especially in the offensive huddle, that we’ve gotta wrangle back some of the momentum,” Spencer recalled. “The defense was able to do that, especially when you do it in their end near the goal line. Those two guys are the anchors of our defense, that entire d-line has been the anchor of our defense so it’s great to see them step up and make plays in the biggest games. No surprise, they’ve been doing it all year and Saturday was no different but was very timely. We needed a little bit of a boost.”
Eventually, the damm of the Carnegie Mellon defense broke. In the fourth quarter, Ethan Greenfield broke off a 60-plus yard run before Lehnen later sealed the game with a 72-touchdown run. Depending on your perspective, you could attribute the improvement to either North Central adjustments or the Tartans finely being broken down by the nation’s top-scoring offense.
“It’s probably a little bit of both,” said Spencer. “I’d like to think that our offensive line, running backs and tight ends will wear defenses down over the course of four quarters. There’s also some figuring out where you can get guys loose, and you go into a game with a gameplan to attack the different looks you’re going to get from a defense but then you have to respond to what they give you and that can sometimes take a little bit of time. They’re both explosive football players who can run fast and make people miss and it just took a little time to get them into space. Fortunately our whole team stayed patient, everybody was positive the whole game, there was no big ups or downs and it worked out in our favor.”
The Lehnen run felt like a cathartic moment inside Benedetti-Wehrli stadium, as if the cheers were mixed with sighs of relief with the knowledge that North Central would prevail. You could feel it on the sideline, too.
“I’m typically asking the guys up in the box ‘is he going to outrun everybody?’ because on the field you don’t have a great angle of it other than knowing he’s usually one of the fastest guys on the field,” Spencer said of the game-sealing run. “There’s definitely an exhale when you make that run to get down there and score. Next drive in the red zone we took a knee because we felt like we closed out the game, we finished. That’s a big trait that you need going forward playing football in December; you have to be able to finish. It’s gonna be four-quarter games, you have to fight for 60 minutes or more, so it’s great to see the guys do that.”
Up next in the quarterfinals, the Cardinals will face the Ithaca College Bombers. Interestingly, they’re a team that plays in much the same way North Central does setting up a battle of strengths against strengths.
“Another really good football team that’s really well coached,” said Spencer in typically diplomatic fashion. “On offense they’re very multiple in what they do. They have a quarterback that’s actually really similar to Luke: can throw the football, can run, is very dynamic. On defense they’re disciplined, they play really hard. So yeah there’s some similarities there, no doubt, but we’re excited. We’re excited to be playing football, the guys love being around each other and it’s just another step along the path of where we hope to be.”