Saturday was a day of celebration for the North Central Cardinals and head coach Brad Spencer not just in the end zone. The team celebrated Senior Day ahead of the final game of the regular season against Augustana, honoring 22 players including 12 fifth-year seniors. The ceremony was a particularly moving experience for Spencer, who took part in in for the first time as head coach.
“It was awesome, I first had to ask Jim Miller what I needed to do,” said Spencer, asking the North Central athletic director for direction. “It’s a special moment, but there’s not much to say other than to reiterate how much they’ve meant to the program. Maybe it’s a little different for me with it being my first year as a head coach, especially the fifth-year seniors who decided to come back, it means a lot.”
It’s a strange mix of emotions, though, to celebrate the end of these student athletes’ careers when they hope to play five more games including an eventual third-straight Stagg Bowl. But the team knew that once the festivities were over, it was time to work.
“I think I guys have a good balance and understanding,” Spencer said of the players being able to both celebrate but maintain perspective. “They stopped and paused, made sure the seniors were at the forefront of our minds. And that’s something we’ve pressed all year. Since day one of camp we made it very clear that this year is about our seniors and what they’ve done to help raise our standard and put us in the position that we’re in. But at the same time we wanted to win the football game, and having won the conference and secured the automatic bid we know there’s games ahead we need to move on to once Saturday’s over.”
There might have been a bit of rust to shake off without their normal full warmup, as the offense stalled on it’s opening two drives and Augustana was only a few yards away from a 10-point lead. But that’s when the defense stepped up as they often have this year, as sophomore linebacker Angelo Cusumano made an interception in the end zone and then recovered a fumble forced by Sam Taviani on consecutive Augustana offensive snaps.
“Angelo did a great job,” agreed Spencer. “I actually saw him on the way over here and told him ‘hey, you’re our hero,’ and he said ‘no it’s the defense.’ He made a couple plays there to definitely turn the tide for us. Definitely started slow, you never want to do that but it can happen on days like senior day. Fortunately our defense was able to step up and get some turnovers. That allowed our offense to get going, and once we did our guys did a great job.”
It’s the second week in a row the Cardinals have recovered multiple fumbles, a new trend in what has been a season of dominant performance by a defense that now hasn’t allowed a touchdown in seven straight games.
“Well we teach it,” Spencer said of the uptick in forced and recovered fumbles. “Every day we do takeaway circuits, it’s one of our stressors every single week to win the turnover battle. On offense we’re doing the opposite with ball security drills, but that’s something we have to carry forward here in the playoffs.”
It was also another great week for racking up sacks, as the Cardinals got to the quarterback seven times behind primarily the effort of their fearsome defensive line.
“That’s really been the them of our defense, sacks and turnovers,” said Spencer. “I don’t think it’s any question that the defensive line is the strength of our defense. Everything rotates around them. You want to be good in the trenches, and if you have offensive and defensive lines like we do you can win a lot of football games by controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Fittingly for senior day, the two stars on offense were the duo of fifth-year senior running backs: Ethan Greenfield and Terrence Hill, who combined for seven total touchdowns in their final home regular season game. Along with fellow senior Darius Byrd, it was yet another reminder of the success produced by this generation of ball-carriers.
“It was actually one of the goals on offense to get our three senior running backs going,” Spencer said. “And they did that, they had 410 combined yards rushing between the three of them. We wanted to send them off on senior day the right way. Terrence did what he seems to do, averaging 30 yards-per-carry for over 200 yards, and it was a lot of fun to watch.”
Quarterback Luke Lehnen did not start as quickly as his teammates in the backfield, at one point having thrown for -2 yards after catching his own pass that had been batted down by a defender. But he settled down in the second quarter and produced a few spectacular throws, including on a diving catch by Nic Rummell and touchdown to DeAngelo Hardy.
“Yeah we started a little slow in the passing game,” Spencer said of the lack of early success through the air. “It was a good chance for [Luke] to come over to the sideline, relax a little bit, be able to talk through the coverages and what we were seeing, what adjustments we wanted to make. And then he took advantage of it. Credit to our offensive line for protecting him, doing what they’ve been doing most every single week. And it opens up so much for us when we’re able to run the ball and we can protect him, Luke’s gonna have a chance.”
The next day after the win, North Central and 31 other teams were sorted into a bracket for the NCAA Division III Football Championship. The Cardinals, the favorites to win it all, were handed a favorable draw that is likely to result in three games as heavy favorites before a likely difficult semifinal.
“I’m glad we’re playing,” Spencer said with a wry smile. “People ask who you think you’ll play or about the bracket, and our response is ‘happy to be playing.’ It’s a one-week season from here, our only focus is on Lake Forest. We’re thrilled this group of seniors can keep playing, and our hope and goal is to raise the standard of Cardinal football hopefully through the next five weeks.”
They’ll take on the Lake Forest College Foresters in the opening round, champions of the Midwest Conference and a former regular opponent of North Central through the first half of the 20th century. No matter the reputations of the two teams, Spencer is stressing that they’ll look past no one on what that hope is a journey back to the national championship.
“We’re always going to be focusing on ourselves, but we’re familiar with them we played them in 2018,” Spencer said of Lake Forest, who North Central defeated 70-14 in that most recent matchup. “They’re well coached, the play hard, they’ve had a lot of success in their league. They’re one of the top defenses in the country, they run the ball well. So we’ve gotta be on our game.”