Better off red: First Stagg trip, first title for NCC

By Adam Turer

Jeff Thorne and the North Central football team end the season with their head, hands and trophy held high.
Photo by Steve Frommell,

Making the program’s first championship game appearance, the Cardinals appeared more than ready for their big moment. 

A record-setting performance led to the most convincing Stagg Bowl victory in several years, as North Central cruised to a 41-14 victory in Stagg Bowl XLVII.

It took North Central just seven plays and 45 yards to find the end zone. The nation’s hottest offense never looked back in a dominating win.

Broc Rutter had all kinds of time to throw, and receivers Andrew Kamienski and Blake Williams used that time to get open early and often. Ethan Greenfield kept UW-Whitewater’s defense off balance all day, and the Cardinals offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. 

North Central's road to the title

First round: Def. Wabash, 51-15
Second round: Def. No. 1 Mount Union, 59-52
Quarterfinals: Def. 9 Delaware Valley, 31-14
Semifinals: Def. No. 4 Muhlenberg, 45-14
Championship: Def. No. 7 UW-Whitewater, 41-14

Rankings entering playoffs.

Rutter, announced earlier Friday evening as the 2019 Gagliardi Trophy winner, looked the part, completing 18 of 27 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns. The senior’s final career pass, a 28-yard touchdown to Kamienski, broke Alex Tanney’s Division III record for career passing yards. Rutter finished with 14,261 yards, besting Tanney’s record by a dozen yards. Kamienski also broke the record for most touchdown receptions in a single season with 31, catching nine passes for 134 yards and a score. 

Terrence Hill returned the game’s opening kickoff 49 yards, setting up the North Central offense with a short field. The offense that came in averaging 534.5 yards per game in the postseason did not need a short field, and made quick work of the Warhawks defense.

Rutter passed for one touchdown and ran for another and Greenfield rushed for a pair in the first half as the Cardinals jumped out to a 27-0 lead. That was the largest first half deficit any team had faced in a Stagg Bowl since Trinity (TX) trailed Mount Union 28-0 at the break in 2002. 

Just a sophomore, Greenfield finished with 138 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. Blake Williams hauled in three catches for 52 yards and a touchdown, and also contributed stellar downfield blocking on Greenfield’s longest touchdown run of the game. 

Alex Peete and Sam Delany tried their best to give the Warhawks a spark. Peete burst through the line for a 47-yard gain on UW-Whitewater’s first possession of the second half. But that drive ended in a missed field goal. After the Cardinals extended their lead to 34-0, Delany ripped off a 65-yard kickoff return to the North Central 21 yard line. That possession ended in a touchdown pass from Max Meylor to Jared Zausch and the Warhawks’ first Stagg Bowl points since their 2014 championship. It was Zausch’s first career touchdown reception. 

North Central also controlled the line of scrimmage on the other side of the ball. While the offense had its way with UW-Whitewater’s defense, the Cardinals defense continued to play at a high level. After giving up 52 points at Mount Union in the second round, the Cardinals clamped down, giving up just 42 points -- 14 each -- over its final three games. 

Julian Bell had two interceptions, one early and one late, to get the ball back in Rutter’s hands. 

UW-Whitewater’s offense showed new signs of life with Meylor behind center in the postseason, but every time the Warhawks saw glimpses of daylight on Friday night, Cardinals defenders Ben Wong, Dakota Cremeens, Bryan Beauchamp, Tommy Hyland, Dan Gilroy, Jake Beesley, and Zach Butler quickly closed the gap. 

Dating back to the beginning of the 2018 season, the Cardinals recognized that they had special talents at quarterback, on the offensive line, and at receiver. Once Greenfield stepped up as a record-breaking running back, the offense became an unstoppable juggernaut. 

This was a matchup that favored whichever team could score first. The Warhawks are not built to play from behind, at least not this year. UW-Whitewater’s offense will return several key contributors next year, led by Meylor, Derek Kumerow, Alex Peete, and Ryan Wisniewski. 

But this North Central offense knows how to play with a lead, and kept its foot on the gas. The Cardinals’ offensive line of Will Ebert, Sharmore Clarke, Jarod Thornton, Ricky Strba, and Colton Bauknecht kept the Warhawks defenders on their heels all night. 

The Cardinals will return most of their offensive line and skill position players. If anything, North Central’s breakthrough -- the fourth different Stagg Bowl winner in the past six seasons -- gives the rest of Division III confidence that it can build a contender, and turn that contender into a champion.

On this Friday in late December, the Cardinals left no doubt. A total team effort propelled North Central to the pinnacle. It was a culmination of the efforts that head coach Jeff Thorne and his predecessor and father John Thorne devoted to this small college in Naperville. 

One family’s dream was realized on this night. North Central Cardinals, Division III football national champions. 

2019 Division III football playoffs

December 20, 2019 2019 Division III football playoff bracket The most exciting Division III football playoffs in the expanded bracket era comes to a close, with North Central on top. This is how it all shook out.

December 23, 2019 A dream fulfilled North Central coach Jeff Thorne dreamed about his father, the previous North Central coach, making his way through the crowd so they could share a Walnut and Bronze moment together. The two men who rebooted the Cardinals in 2002 combined to build a program which brought home the hardware. Keith McMillan has more.

December 20, 2019 Better off red A special season for Division III football ended with a first-time champion, as North Central hoisted Walnut and Bronze, defeating UW-Whitewater 41-14 in Stagg Bowl XLVII.

December 18, 2019 Everything's lining up for North Central With all the talk about the Cardinals' prolific offense, their Gagliardi finalist at quarterback, their sure All-Americans at wide receiver and running back, one can't ignore that it is all made possible by the offensive line. Adam Turer talks to all the key players up front, their coaches and the guys they protect and open holes for.

December 17, 2019 Meylor breaks out as UWW quarterback After being the 1-A quarterback behind Zach Oles for most of the season, Max Meylor has been the No. 1 since the start of the playoffs. But it hasn't changed the quarterbacks' relationship off the field or on the sidelines. Joe Sager has more.

December 16, 2019 Getting to the Stagg: Early picks, late picks There were picks early in Allentown, and late in Whitewater, as North Central and UW-Whitewater booked their tickets to Shenandoah. We won't get the shootout-style matchup of the two top D-III QBs, but we got to see Max Meylor have a breakout game. Pat and Keith have that and more from both games in the latest podcast.

December 14, 2019 UWW stops Johnnies, heads to Stagg Wojciech Gasienica kicked four field goals, the last one from 37 yards out with 2:10 left, as UW-Whitewater edged St. John's 35-32 to return to the Stagg Bowl.

December 14, 2019 North Central rolls past Muhlenberg in semis The visiting Cardinals flew out to a 28-0 lead by the second play of the second quarter and North Central cruised past Muhlenberg to advance to the Stagg Bowl for the first time in program history.

December 13, 2019 Quick Hits: Our panel predicts the semifinals Who will be moving on to play in Stagg Bowl XLVII in Texas? Here's who our panel thinks will advance, and how and why it will happen.

December 12, 2019 Brand helps Warhawks D-line make a splash Jordan Brand leaves quite an impression. These days, the Warhawks' defensive lineman leaves his impression on opposing quarterbacks, running backs and offensive coordinators. Brian Lester has more.

December 11, 2019 St. John's has recipe for success The Johnnies have had an interesting concoction this season, but it's the special ingredient which has St. John's still alive in this playoff. Adam Turer has more.

December 10, 2019 The defense which fuels Muhlenberg's drive Trying to solve Muhlenberg's defense can be puzzling. And that makes sense, since the Mules can throw different looks and different personnel at opponents from game to game, or even down to down. Joe Sager has more.

December 7, 2019 Final four: Mules, Cardinals, Warhawks, Johnnies St. John's survived an epic finish, while UW-Whitewater, North Central and Muhlenberg all advanced to the national semifinals with relative ease.

December 6, 2019 Looking at a new-look quarterfinals We're on to the third round of the playoffs, and it looks a little less purple, a little more wide-open. Will any of the games be close? Can't say we know that for sure, but we have No. 2 through No. 9 in our Top 25 still playing, and that makes things fun. On this edition of the podcast, we chat with Delaware Valley head coach Duke Greco and preview all four quarterfinals.

December 5, 2019 A quarterfinal reunion of old foes The Warhawks and Crusaders have met in the regular season twice and in the semifinals four times. The fact that this week's meeting between Whitewater and UMHB is in the quarterfinals does nothing to dim the rivalry. Brian Lester has more.

December 4, 2019 Salisbury finds itself new options Running the ball is nothing new for the Sea Gulls. But it's that other thing you do with the football -- throwing it -- that has taken flight at Salisbury. Joe Sager has more.

December 3, 2019 North Central refuses to lose The Cardinals stood out on the field in Alliance, Ohio, shortly after defeating Mount Union, and shouted, "I am a champion, and I refuse to lose!" It came at the end of a multiple-round fight, and the boxing terminology is intentional. Pat Coleman has more.

December 3, 2019 For Wheaton, No. 2 wasn't good enough While most programs would be delighted to post a winning percentage of .800, the Thunder were determined to not repeat the last two seasons, where they went 8-2 and finished as runners-up in the CCIW. Perhaps 12-0 is more their liking. Adam Turer has more.

December 2, 2019 Voices from all around the second round Highlights from Saturday, plus voices from UMHB, Wheaton, Salisbury, St. John's, Muhlenberg and North Central coach Jeff Thorne talks about the Cardinals' epic win, the adjustments they made, and how they kept fighting. That plus much more in the latest podcast.

November 30, 2019 Mount Union bounced in epic shootout North Central and Mount Union poured out all of the offense they could manage, and it was an interception in the end zone with two seconds left that gave the Cardinals the upset win.

November 28, 2019 Time to get out of the turkey coma The next round in our five-course meal is the playoffs' second round, from Maryland's Eastern Shore to Orange County, California. We talk with coaches from Union and Wesley about this week's games and preview all eight contests, plus talk about the Gagliardi Trophy and more.

November 27, 2019 Chapman continues to map uncharted territory First 9-0 season, first playoff home game, first playoff win ... now the Panthers are hosting a second-round game and have St. John's coming to town. Brian Lester has more.

November 27, 2019 Muhlenberg family keys off brothers It's common for teams to refer to themselves as family. The Mules, however, have brothers who not only are teammates, but square off against each other in practice. Joe Sager has more.

November 26, 2019 Bounceback year has Hawks in second round "When we were 0-4, it could have gotten really bad, but it didn’t. Instead, we were still getting better at the end of the year." And one year later, Huntingdon made the playoffs and got a road playoff win to boot. Adam Turer has more.

November 23, 2019 UMHB bracket: Huntingdon wins on road Huntingdon came up with the key road win, while Wartburg rolled to a win at Hope and higher seeds Mary Hardin-Baylor and UW-Whitewater won easily at home in the first round of the top-left bracket of the 2019 NCAA Division III playoffs.

November 23, 2019 Mount Union bracket: Del Val rallies, rest roll Delaware Valley outscored Bridgewater 23-9 in the second half and 13-3 in the fourth quarter to win at Bridgewater, while Ethan Greenfield had himself a day for North Central, a freshman quarterback was huge for Wesley and Mount Union rolled in its playoff opener.

November 23, 2019 Salisbury bracket: Brockport, Union come back Brockport and Union had thrilling come-from-behind wins, while Muhlenberg and Salisbury each had shutout wins in the first round of the upper right-hand bracket of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

November 23, 2019 Central, Chapman win in OT; SJU survives The Wheaton bracket, on the bottom left, saw three great games. Central rallied to beat UW-Oshkosh in overtime, St. John's survived a shootout with Aurora and Linfield and Chapman needed multiple extra periods to decide it out west.

November 21, 2019 Our playoff surprises, disappointments For each region, we picked one team that will surprise, one that will disappoint, and one that will make it through to the national semifinals. The lack of consensus just goes to show you how exciting the 2019 postseason is going to be. Read on to find out what us “experts” predict, and chime in with your own predictions in the comments.

November 20, 2019 In playoff mode since October, NCC relieved to get in “We’ve been playing desperate ... and it’s no different now,” North Central coach Jeff Thorne said. “If we lose, we are done. We have to carry that same mindset into Saturday and hope it’s at an even higher level of awareness.”

November 20, 2019 Golden Bears looking to take next step Western New England has been to the playoffs five years running, but this season presents the Golden Bears with a game against an established Division III program, with a chance to advance. Joe Sager has more.

November 19, 2019 NCAA's final regional ranking The final regional rankings arrived from the NCAA on Tuesday morning. These are the rankings the NCAA football championship committee used to select at-large teams and pair them up.

November 18, 2019 Podcast: Selection Sunday breakdown While folks from JCU and Susquehanna don’t understand why they aren’t in the playoffs (can’t say we didn’t warn you), there actually is a lot to like in this bracket. We talk with the committee chair, look at the best first-round matchups and decide who has the hardest road to the Stagg Bowl.

November 18, 2019 2019 playoffs: Mary Hardin-Baylor bracket Here's all the nuts and bolts about the eight teams in the top left-hand bracket, from top seed UMHB to No. 8 seed Huntingdon, where the Cru will be joined by Vikings and Scots, Hawks and Warhawks, Dutch, Knights and Bulldogs.

November 18, 2019 2019 playoffs: Mount Union bracket Here's what you need to know on the bottom right bracket, where there are Purple Raiders, Cardinals, Wolverines, Aggies, Little Giants, Panthers, Rams and Eagles.

November 18, 2019 2019 playoffs: Salisbury bracket The Sea Gulls haven't had their name atop a bracket previously, but it's one with Privateers, Engineers, Golden Bears, Golden Eagles, Mules, Dutchmen and Spartans. Here's all the details on the top right bracket.

November 18, 2019 2019 playoffs: Wheaton bracket Wheaton as a top seed in the bottom left bracket will try to bring the Thunder against the Dutch, Knights, Panthers and Wildcats, Johnnies, Titans and Spartans. Get all the details on the bottom left bracket here.

November 17, 2019 Our projected playoff bracket When you get to the end of the night on Selection Eve, all you want is a little clarity. We got it when Cortland lost, when Bethel lost, and when all five of the at-large teams we projected earlier this week came home with wins. And then, the metaphorical grenade was launched into the process when UW-Whitewater could not hold onto the football. Here's what it does to the bracket.

November 14, 2019 Our projected playoff bracket Although 112 games have yet to be played, and one-third of the field has yet to be determined, it's not too soon to take a look at who might get the at-large bids, and where teams might be seeded. Here's our projected playoff bracket, through Week 10.

November 13, 2019 NCAA's second regional ranking The second official regional rankings have arrived from the NCAA. These are the rankings the NCAA football championship committee will eventually use to select at-large teams and pair them up.

November 6, 2019 NCAA's first regional ranking The first official regional rankings have arrived from the NCAA. These are the rankings the NCAA football championship committee will eventually use to select at-large teams and pair them up.

More 2019 Division III football playoff coverage