Story and photo courtesy of North Central Athletics
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - The longest trip taken by a NCAA Division III football team did little to slow down the North Central College Cardinals on Saturday, as they came out of the gate running and blew past the California Lutheran University Kingsmen, 41-21, at William Rolland Stadium in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Championship.
The Cardinals (9-2) won for the fifth straight time in the first round of the postseason, putting up 528 total yards and establishing control early with a 24-point first quarter.
"I thought our guys played really hard," said North Central head coach John Thorne. "They were definitely ready when the game started. The offense got going early and the defense got several stops. The guys did a good job running the clock down in the second half.
"I thought Cal Lutheran played a great game. It was a lot closer than the score shows. We made some big plays, and they just missed on some of their opportunities for big plays, partially because our guys made it happen."
North Central was also the beneficiary of the efforts of running back Nick Kukuc, who gained a career-high 250 yards on 20 carries, coming up just 10 yards short of the Cardinals' single-game record. Kukuc did break his own single-season school record, currently owning 1,259 rushing yards this season.
"We knew we had to run the ball," Kukuc said. "The offensive line did great. We had some mistakes here and there, but we know our main focus is to run the ball and we knew we could do that. We did well, but we know we can do better."
Kukuc threw the opening punch soon after the bell sounded, taking the second play from scrimmage 79 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. The Cardinals fumbled away their next possession, but needed just three plays to score once again after forcing a CLU punt. Quarterback Spencer Stanek completed a 25-yard pass to Ryan Szudarki and handed off to Kukuc for 23 yards before calling his own number on the option and running 11 yards to the end zone.
North Central's special-teams unit came up big on the next play, forcing a fumble which was recovered by P.J. Crotty at the Kingsmen's 25-yard line. Kicker Nick Dace came on to knock in a 38-yard field goal with 4:55 on the first-quarter clock, boosting the lead to 17-0.
Cal Lutheran (8-2) saw is next possession result in a fumble as well, as Joey Michals pounced on the loose ball at the Cardinals' 25. Four plays later, the visitors were in the end zone again. On third down-and-21, Stanek fired a deep pass to Jeff Stolzenburg, who collected the ball and tiptoed down the sideline for a 54-yard TD with 18 seconds left in the opening period.
The Kingsmen got on the board midway through the second quarter, intercepting a pass at their own 33 and embarking on an 11-play, 67-yard drive which culminated in a three-yard scoring run by Ryan Zirbel with 4:34 on the clock. North Central fumbled on its next play from scrimmage and the hosts had a chance to further cut into the lead, but the Cardinals' Josh Fick forced a fumble on fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line and Michals recovered to negate the threat.
Stanek got the Cardinals out of the shadow of their own end zone with a 48-yard bomb to Stolzenburg, and Dace closed the half with a 49-yard field goal to send North Central into the locker room with a 27-7 halftime advantage.
The Cardinals forced a punt on the opening drive of the second half, and Kukuc ran four times for 66 yards in a seven-play, 77-yard drive which ended with Stanek's 13-yard TD pass to Stolzenburg with 9:11 on the clock in the third period. North Central opened its final scoring drive at its own 32 after Josh Mitchell intercepted a pass from Kingsmen quarterback Zach Shultis, as Stanek found Chad O'Kane for a 34-yard score on third down.
North Central's defense held Cal Lutheran to 324 total yards, roughly 200 below the Kingsmen's season average, and forced four turnovers while recording four quarterback sacks. Michals led the way with nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, while Alex Pirela made eight stops and Josh Beveridge tallied two sacks to give him a team-high 7.5 for the season.
"The getting the job done today was the game plan our coaches put together," Michals said. "We knew they were a great offensive team, and they showed it today. We just wanted to go about our business like we do every week. Our defensive line played great and the secondary did a great job as well. I think everyone just played hard and the game plan was what did it for us."
Stanek completed 13 of 19 passes for 236 yards, while Stolzenburg hauled in a career-high 121 yards on four catches. The Cardinals recorded 26 first downs and did not punt all afternoon.
Shultis completed 18 of 26 pases for 171 yards, while receiver Eric Rogers caught nine passes for 111 yards and two scores and Romello Goodman paced Cal Lutheran's ground game with 70 yards on 16 carrie. Dontaie Ferguson led the Kingsmen with a game-high 11 tackles.
The Cardinals advance to next Saturday's second round, traveling to face Linfield College (Ore.), a 27-24 winner over Pacific Lutheran University (Wash.) in the first round.
"It's going to be a lot of travel involved," Thorne said, "but we need these guys to be able to finish their final exams, and we're looking forward to studying the tapes and trying to figure out a game plan and watching our guys execute it."