By Adam Turer
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.
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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.
|Jeff Thorne and the North Central football team end the season with their head, hands and trophy held high.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
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.