NCC comes up short against top-ranked Whitewater
By Paul LaTour For The Sun December 4, 2010 5:42PM
Wisconsin-Whitewater defensive back Noah Timm breaks up a pass intended for North Central College receiver Manny Juarez during Saturday’s quarterfinal playoff game. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media
STAT OF THE GAME
North Central College entered with a plus-13 turnover margin, the 23rd-best rate in the nation. But the Cardinals tied a season-high with three turnovers Saturday, while forcing only one, making it the second time they have lost the turnover battle all season.
Updated: April 19, 2011 5:23AM
Matt Wenger stared at the floor, shook his head and mouthed a single word — no — in response to a question during North Central College’s postgame news conference.
Pushing the No. 1-ranked and defending national champion football team to the brink was not enough for Wenger to feel good about. The bottom line for him was the Cardinals lost.
Capitalizing on three turnovers, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater erased a three-point deficit to come out with a 20-10 victory in a NCAA Division III quarterfinal Saturday before a crowd of 2,383 at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
“It was a fun game to be a part of, but it’s not fun to lose, especially when you have the team that could have beat them,” said Wenger, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles in the final game of his All-American career. “A lot of people didn’t give us a chance, but we knew we could do it. If a couple things had gone different, we win this game.”
A 32-yard Nick Dace field goal gave the fifth-ranked Cardinals (12-1) a 10-7 lead with 6:32 left in the third quarter, which held up until the fourth and was the latest point all season in which the Warhawks (13-0) trailed in a game.
The Cardinals next possession ended on a deflection off tight end Kyle Fiedorowicz that popped into the hands of Warhawks safety Sam Overton at the Cardinals’ 19 late in the third. Four plays later, quarterback Lee Brekke scrambled into the end zone on a 5-yard run to make it 14-10.
Whitewater defensive tackle Luke Hibner forced turnovers on the next two Cardinals possessions with a fumble recovery and interception. The Warhawks settled for field goals both times, but that was enough to finish off the Cardinals, who had their school-record 14-game winning streak snapped.
“I don’t think we were (fortunate),” Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said of the turnovers. “We were very opportunistic, but at the same time if we score instead of turning the ball over we would have taken control in the first half.”
Both teams scored on their opening possessions but those were the only points of the first half.
The Cardinals started with an 88-yard drive capped by a 1-yard run from Nick Kukuc. The drive featured three catches by Steve Hlavac, including a 47-yard reception to set up Kukuc’s run on the next play.
The Warhawks quickly tied the game, needing only 1:29 to go 63 yards. Adam Brandes caught a 50-yard pass on the drive’s first play, and then capped it with a 10-yard grab in the end zone.
The Cardinals avoided trouble early in the second half after the Warhawks drove into the red zone. But Scott Hogan intercepted Brekke in the end zone, the only turnover the Cardinals forced in the game.
Hlavac finished with seven catches for 130 yards as he became the school’s career receptions leader with 179. It’s the second career record Hlavac broke in two games after setting the mark for receiving yardage in last week’s 28-9 win over Ohio Northern Unversity.
NCC ended up with a 306-253 advantage in total offense, led by Hlavac and Stanek, who was 15-of-24 passing for 207 yards. But its fifth- ranked rushing defense gave up 140 yards for the second straight game. Oak Park native Levell Coppage did the most damage, running for 107 yards on 29 carries.
Despite the disappointment of the loss, Cardinals coach John Thorne said it won’t be the last time the program plays the likes of Whitewater, which owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 28 games and has played in five consecutive Stagg Bowls.
“We’d like to play teams like this again really soon – but we’ve got to wait a year now,” Thorne said. “We learned a lot from today’s game and our guys gained a lot of confidence to carry on into the future. The Cardinals are going to be pretty stinking good for a long time.”