The top three teams in the CCIW entered last week’s play undefeated, but a three-week stretch began to clear up the conference title picture last week.
Illinois Wesleyan took care of Wheaton, 30-19, to give one of the big three its first loss and give the Titans their first 7-0 start to a season since 1996. Now, North Central prepares to enter the fray.
The seven-time defending CCIW champions face Illinois Wesleyan Saturday and Wheaton next Saturday, both on the road, in a two-week stretch that could define the season, good or bad. All three teams are currently ranked in the top 19 in the D3football.com poll, with the Cardinals checking in fourth, Wesleyan moving up to 13th and Wheaton dropping to 19th.
“It’s really important to have your starters healthy late in the season, and that’s hard to do sometimes in conference,” NCC coach John Thorne said. “That’s what got Wesleyan last year. They had injuries in the Wheaton game and they never recovered the rest of the year.
“We love these weeks. Wesleyan, Wheaton, Augustana (the team North Central hosts to end the regular season in three weeks), throughout the 12 years (Thorne has been the coach) have always been really great games.”
After suffering through a rash of injuries this season, the Cardinals enter the big stretch of the schedule healthier than they have been in weeks. And they also enter with depth that the other two contenders just can’t counter.
Due to the injury problems and the lopsided nature of the Cardinals’ 7-0 start to the season, key backups and even young players that may not have projected to get playing time have seen significant reps, something that can only help the Cardinals moving forward.
“That’s just a part of the game,” Thorne said of the softer early schedule. “It was a great thing for us to have games where we’ve gotten ahead. We’ve gotten a good look at all of our number twos and all of our young guys. It’s been a good thing.”
Statistically, the Cardinals appear to be in good shape to come through this stretch with another CCIW title. NCC leads the CCIW in total offense (527.9 yards per game) and total defense (246.9 yards per game allowed), with Wesleyan coming in second in both categories and Wheaton third.
But the main concern is where the games are being played, on the road in back-to-back weeks.
“It’s really hard in our conference to win on the road,” Thorne said. “We know we’ve got some really good battles ahead of us.”
The team is ready for the challenge.
“The two biggest games of the season are what we live for,” quarterback Spencer Stanek said. “It is hard to not look toward those games. But I think we do a good job in practice of focusing on what we need to do that week.”