College Football: North Central ready for Round 2
BY PAUL JOHNSON For Sun-Times Media November 22, 2012 4:00PM
Updated: November 22, 2012 9:20PM
North Central College senior running back Nick Kukuc has had one of the great careers in program history, but even the humble Naperville Central graduate had to admit that his performance last Saturday was the best yet.
Despite being sick as a dog, Kukuc ran for 250 yards, 10 yards off of the program’s single-season record, and scored a 79-yard touchdown on the game’s second play to set the tone for a 41-21 first-round Division III playoff win at Cal Lutheran.
“I think personally that was one of my best games as a player,” Kukuc said. “I guess it was my version of the Michael Jordan flu game. It was a rough game. It was a painfully long game, but the outcome was really nice.”
That outcome spurred another trip out west, this time to Oregon to face the nation’s third-ranked team, unbeaten Linfield, in the second round Saturday.
Creatures of habit, the Cardinals have not had a typical week to prepare for that challenge. They traveled back from California on Sunday and then had finals for the first trimester the first three days this week. The Thanksgiving holiday was spent together as a team in anticipation of Friday’s trip to Oregon.
“It was difficult for myself, and it was difficult for the rest of the team getting through it,” said Kukuc, who broke his own single-season rushing record last week and now stands only 159 yards out of second place in program history all-time.
“Everybody right now is kind of mentally fried with finals. Personally, it was difficult for me having to travel and then having one of my toughest finals Monday. The coaches know that being an athlete is second to being a student in Division III. We really pride ourselves on being that great student-athlete. I think we did a great job of really pulling together and getting through it.”
Finals are in their rear-view mirror now, so preparing for Linfield is now front and center. Like Cal Lutheran, a team Linfield beat 33-30 in nonconference play this season, the Wildcats are a passing team, averaging 318.8 pass yards per game. Quarterback Mickey Inns has been very efficient, passing for 2,736 yards and 27 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
Defensively, Cal Lutheran coach Ben McEnroe told North Central coach John Thorne that Linfield is the most physical Division III team he has seen.
The Wildcats lead the nation with 114 tackles for loss and 57 sacks. Junior defensive end Brynnan Hyland has a whopping 18 of those sacks.
“Can we out-hit them or are we going to let them out-hit us like Wheaton?” asked Thorne of the Wheaton loss three weeks ago that likely sent the Cardinals on these consecutive road trips to start the playoffs. “The Wheaton game has really been an eye-opener for us.
“The guys realized that we can’t show up and play and expect people to be afraid to hit us.”
The thing that worried Thorne going into last week’s game was speed.
But when Kukuc took off for a 79-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game, he knew the Cardinals could run with Cal Lutheran. They were never threatened the rest of the game.
“The rest of the game, the guys weren’t fearful of having to run with people,” Thorne said.
“The same thing needs to happen this week. We have to go up ready to play, excited and ready to play physical. I’m hoping that the schedule we played has us better prepared than theirs has, but we’ll see.”