Cardinals headed to third round for first time
By Paul LaTour For the Sun November 27, 2010 8:17PM
NCC’s Jordan Tassio (4) fends off Ohio Northern’s Justin Henck while on a long run on Saturday at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 19, 2011 5:20AM
John Thorne began telling people as early as the third game this season that his North Central College football team was special. Now he has resounding proof.
This year’s squad is going where no Cardinals team has gone before — the third round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
NCC overcame a dismal start before bolting to a 28-9 victory over Ohio Northern University on Saturday at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium. The fifth-ranked Cardinals (12-0), who set a school record for wins in a season, will play host to No. 1 University of Wisconsin at Whitewater (12-0) in the quarterfinals at noon Saturday.
“You always want your team to be tight(-knit), but it’s not a real easy thing to do,” said Thorne, who improved to 5-4 in the postseason. “I’ve been coaching football for about 40 years now, and there have only been a few like this (team).”
Nick Kukuc ran for a career-high 137 yards and two touchdowns, and Jordan Tassio topped 100 yards rushing for the fourth time this season as the Cardinals rolled up 285 yards on the ground.
That allowed them to overcome a sluggish opening 25 minutes during which they were called for two personal fouls and one penalty for having 12 men on the field on a punt return, which all helped prolong drives by the Polar Bears.
The Cardinals also botched a punt return that extended another drive. Offensively, the Cardinals managed only 10 yards in the first quarter and didn’t get a first down until their third drive.
But things changed with about 5 minutes left in the half when Kyle Haste blocked a punt. Kukuc broke a 31-yard run on the next play to spark a five-play scoring drive capped when quarterback Spencer Stanek pushed in from the 6.
On the next drive Kukuc, who ran for 91 yards in the second quarter alone, burst free for a 51-yard scamper for another touchdown, making it 14-3 with 41 seconds left in the half.
“I had a couple misreads on my first few carries, and when I have a correct read that’s what happens,” said Kukuc, who averaged 9.8 yards on his 14 carries. “We finally got all 11 guys doing what we needed to do, and that’s what sprung that.”
The lead went to 21-3 late in the third when tight end Jeff Grunwald lined up at fullback and plunged in from the 2. The drive was aided by Tassio’s 48-yard run on third down two plays earlier.
“Now we were forced a little bit out of some of our play-calling,” ONU coach Dean Paul said. “At 14-3, that wasn’t bad. When you get to 21-3 you press a little bit where you start to feel you have to score quicker.”
Kukuc added a 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth before the seventh-ranked Polar Bears (10-2) scored on an 18-yard pass from Kyle Simmons to Jay Priest as time expired.
The touchdown did little to dampen the spirits of the Cardinals, who celebrated the victory by immediately shifting focus to Whitewater, the defending national champion.
“I’ve been on three teams that lost in the second round,” said Cardinals linebacker Matt Wenger, who tied his career high with 18 tackles. “That gets pretty frustrating. But just getting to the third round isn’t our ultimate goal.”