Brad Spencer On Expectations vs Reality in His First Season
It’s safe to say that Brad Spencer couldn’t be having a much better first year as head coach of the North Central football team, as the squad remains undefeated at 13-0 and one win away from reaching a third straight Stagg Bowl. For Spencer, it’s a season that’s met his expectations because this is where Cardinals football believes it should be every season.
“Well we’re still playing football, and that was the goal back in January or at the beginning of the season was to keep playing in December and play as long as we can with the goal being the Stagg Bowl for the third year in a row,” said Spencer. “I’m really proud of everybody for what we’ve accomplished to this point, and we’re putting ourselves in a position to be where we want to be. These fifth-year seniors deserve that, they’ve worked for it, they’ve totally raised the standards and expectations of our program over the last four or five years. We’re excited for this week, just excited for every day to prep and get ready to play what we feel is one of if not the most talented football teams in the country. Certainly excited to have our chance to play them again.”
That team is, of course, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders, whom the Cardinals lost to in last year’s Stagg Bowl in Canton, Ohio. But this time they’ll face the defending champs on home turf, a fourth straight home playoff game for the Cardinals. Following the win over Ithaca, senior running back Ethan Greenfield said he’s happily play this game in a parking lot. While the Cardinals would gladly play anywhere, there are some nice plusses of being at home.
“I’d agree with Ethan, we just want to keep playing football,” Spencer said. “I think if the last couple of years have taught us anything it’s that our team can go on the road and win games in November and December. But we’re certainly excited to be at home. It’s great for our institution, it’s great for visibility for North Central, it’s great for Naperville, it’s great for our fans and families. Obviously, it’s nice to be in your own bed and your own offices all week. We’re not leaving on Thursday so you don’t have to push up or move game plans and prep… but whatever the obstacles are at this point in the year, whether you’re home or away, you just have to overcome them and get the job done.”
Saturday’s Quarterfinal Victory
They certainly got the job done this past week in their 48-7 victory over Ithaca College, which started with a near-perfect offensive series: a 13-play, 90-yard, six-and-a-half minute touchdown drive capped off by a short Greenfield rushing touchdown.
“Points are points, so you’re happy with that regardless,” said Spencer of the drive, which also included a 4th Down conversion on the Cardinals’ own 19-yard-line. “We had 42 minutes of possession to their 17. You’re gonna win a lot of football games doing that, so I’m proud of our guys for starting fast. That was an objective for the offense this week, to get points on our first drive. Then our defense came out and did what they’ve seemingly been doing just about every single week lately. Then we were able to keep rolling and take a nice lead into halftime.”
The two players who lit up the offensive stat sheet on Saturday were sophomore quarterback Luke Lehnen, who had a hand in five total touchdowns, and his top target junior wide receiver DeAngelo Hardy, who hauled in three touchdown passes and put up over 100 yards. Given Hardy’s skill and the lack of depth at the receiver position, the way the Cardinals offense is able to get him the ball remains impressive given the defense knows how much of a focal point Hardy is.
“I think it’s because of our run game,” Spencer explained. “You look at what our offensive line and tight ends are doing, you look at our stable of running backs… I think there’s a lot of focus on stopping the run, getting enough hats in the box. Then from there we’re able to try and get our receivers open. It’s nice to see Nic Rummell have a couple of catches and get some other guys involved as well. It’s just a matter of continuing to have balance in what we’re doing. Obviously, Luke’s ability to run the football brings a whole other dynamic to try and defend us. You can’t just look at what we’re doing in the box with the running backs, but also what Luke can do with his legs and also when plays break down.”
Speaking of Lehnen’s running, he rushed for a personal career high in yards for the second week in a row. He displayed supreme confidence in his decision making on the many read-option plays in the Cardinals repertoire, and the Bombers had no answer for Lehnen’s speed.
“It’d be great if he’d do that again this week,” Spencer said with a smile. “I think it just goes back to his preparation. He knows what he’s looking at, it’s his third year in our offense. When teams are focusing so much on [the running backs] it can open things up for him. The key to being a quarterback, or really any position on the field, is putting your eyes in the right spots, it’s one of most under-coached things in football. If your eyes aren’t where they’re supposed to be you’ll have a hard time doing your job, but fortunately right now he’s doing a good job of reading and making the right decisions. And then it helps that he’s one of the fastest guys on the field each week. He can move, we’ve all seen that, that helps too.”
The only things that didn’t go North Central’s way were the flags. Numerous holding penalties were called on the Cardinals, including on three different long gains by Greenfield. They were also guilty of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that aided Ithaca’s lone touchdown drive. Even though the penalties didn’t impact the outcome, they still have to be given the same attention as any other week.
“Those are always things that you look at, part of your [list] of things to check off,” said Spencer on reviewing the game and looking for ways to improve. “Especially the personal fouls and things after the play is dead, those things are absolutely unacceptable and have to be corrected. When the penalties are 9-2, um, yeah it’s a little surprising I’d say. I thought it was a little bit lopsided, I let the refs know that, they did not know what the ratio was at that time but fortunately it didn’t hurt us too much. At the end of the day, we can’t control what the refs are gonna call. The ones I would have maybe liked to see called is our quarterback got hit a couple of times late without the football. As long as you’re protecting the players, we’re gonna be pretty quiet on the sidelines.”
Building Confidence and Continuing to Work Hard
The Cardinals have dispatched their three playoff opponents with ease, outscoring them 106-14. But Spencer says that this build up isn’t where the team’s confidence comes from, but rather the last several years during which they’ve worked to constantly raise the standards of North Central football.
“It’s not just the last three weeks, I think you can look at our seniors and collectively their careers here particularly the last 3 years and 2 seasons,” Spencer said. “That should build confidence. Their confidence should also be coming from the work they do throughout the offseason. They push themselves, they train hard, they’re around each other a lot, they’re holding each other to our standards. To me, that’s where the confidence should come from. Your confidence comes from your preparation.”
“The prep this week’s no different,” Spencer continued. “Meetings are the same, practice is the same. Each week you adjust a little bit based on where your health is and who you’re playing. But if we’ve been doing this all year, then we should be prepared for this. We’ve had 13 run-throughs for this, not that the other games aren’t hard or you’re not challenged, but if your prep is always the same then you don’t have to get to these games and moments and feel like you have to change anything or do anything special.”
A win on Saturday would mean a third straight Stagg Bowl appearance and further cement North Central’s place among Division III football’s elite. Rather than taking any credit for a great first year, for Spencer this is all about the players and win or lose it is the team that gets them as far as they go.
“I think any time you get to where we’re at in the final four with an opportunity to go to the national championship, obviously you have to be proud of that,” said Spencer. “Me personally? It’s not about me, it’s my 19th year here so I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it. I don’t feel like any part of it is about me. If anything, I’m just trying not to mess everything up. It’s really about this group of young men and what they’ve been able to do and how they’ve come together… and I know our guys are prepared and ready for the moment.”