Luke Lehnen and Dan Gilroy

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Luke Lehnen and Dan Gilroy Remain Center Stage

They’ve been stars of the show all season for the Cardinals, and in Saturday’s second round playoff win over Carnegie Mellon sophomore quarterback Luke Lehnen and senior defensive end Dan Gilroy were once again right in the middle of things and return to The Red Zone for the second time each this season.

Any discussion of the game has to start with the biggest plays, first the 72-yard touchdown run by Lehnen that sealed the victory for North Central.

“So I read a handoff to Ethan, and then I see the defense pulling too far so there’s nobody there to cover the corner,” said Lehnen walking through his decision making. “So i pulled it, and then DeAngelo [Hardy] made a great block, I was able to cut up underneath him, and then it was just off to the races from there and I out ran them, so it was pretty fun… I felt pretty fast, I’m not gonna lie, I think it’s probably up there in terms of my top speed.”

Gilroy and his fellow defensive lineman also made two huge impact plays on strip-sacks by fellow senior defensive end Tyler Rich, both recovered by CCIW Co-Defensive Player of the Year Dan Lester.

“It’s awesome being able to help out team make plays,” Gilroy said of being a member of the Cardinals’ impressive defensive line. “Tyler has had himself a number of games now in a row where he’s had two sacks, so it’s really fun being a part of that group.”

Outside of the one touchdown scored by the Tartans, it was a very similar performance for the Cardinals defense to last week against Lake Forest when they set a program record for fewest yards allowed in a game.

“They came out and had some looks we hadn’t seen on film before,” Gilroy said of the Tartans’ early offense. “But after a few plays we were able to get it under control. Our job is to be able to go out and keep doing what we do in practice. Our mentality is that if the offense can score seven points, hopefully we should be able to win the game. Obviously that’s not always gonna happen, but we just try to keep playing and keep going.”

Speaking of good defense, on the flip side the Tartans were playing some of their own as they shutout the Cardinals in the first quarter and kept the game to a one-score margin at halftime.

“One of the things they were doing is they were just bringing a lot of people, a lot of blitzes and stunts up front maybe confusing us a little bit,” said Lehnen. “I know when I saw the blitzers I was panicking a little bit, not getting rid of the ball sometimes. But we ended up figuring it out and started getting a hold of things, particularly when we started scoring later in the game.”

An additional tactic the Carnegie Mellon defense employed was the almost constant use of a quarterback ‘spy,’ whose entire job was to keep tabs on the fleet-of-foot Lehnen.

“It doesn’t really affect it a ton,” Lehnen said of his thought process upon recognizing the Tartans’ strategy. “As an offense, we pride ourselves on carrying out our fakes. So when I’m not getting the ball and I hand it off I try to carry out the fake as best I can. So then on plays when they get lazy with their spying and start running towards Greeny or Terrence too much that’s when I can take advantage of it.”

As for the success the defensive line was able to find, Gilroy said they weren’t motivated by any perceived weakness to exploit but rather simply by the knowledge that every game could be their last together.

“We didn’t really see any particular weaknesses watching film,” Gilroy said. “We just try to approach each week the same. We’re both fifth-year seniors, and once you get into the playoffs we know that we don’t have any more elligibility. Coach Spencer and Coach Dierking always talk abut how we’re on a one-week contract. So we know we don’t have any games after the one we play each Saturday, so I think that playoff mode can really get you going.”

Given that this was the most competitive game the Cardinals have played since the first week of October (which was also the last time any team has scored multiple times against them this season), there as plenty to learn and take forward into the next round that other less competitive games may not have taught.

“Playing with a last play mentality,” said Gilroy. “You never know when your last snap is gonna be, so every snap is valuable.”

“Going along with what Dan said, just making sure we give our all every single play and aren’t taking plays off,” continued Lehnen. “I think this was a good experience for us, starting behind in the game. A lot of games in the past we start on top and win by 50, and this game was more of a challenge and I think we needed it. And that’s really important for the playoffs, to be in those situations before you get to the really big games.”

Speaking of the really big games, in terms of the playoffs the Cardinals are now halfway to a third-consecutive trip to the Stagg Bowl and a chance to once again play for a national championship. It would of course be extremely meaningful to every player on the roster, but the perspective is certainly different depending on how many more chances a player has left to get there.

“Like we’ve said, we need to take it week-by-week,” said Lehnen, clearly not wanting to get ahead of himself. “But to make it there, it would mean a lot to me because getting the fifth-year guys there who do a lot for us, they didn’t have to come back. I think the fifth-years are a big part of why our team’s so successful this year and last year, so it would be great to send them out on a good note.”

“Like Luke said I’m just trying to take it week-by-week, I think all the guys are,” said Gilroy, one of those fifth-year seniors. “To make it back would be a dream come true. Obviously the goal is to win it, but that would be awesome to get back to the Stagg Bowl in my last year.”