Keeping its unblemished 2019 home record intact, the North Central College football team opened the NCAA Division III Championship with a win for the 11th straight time on Saturday, turning back a game effort from Wabash College (Indiana) and defeating the Little Giants, 51-15, at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium to improve to 5-0 in home games this season.
After yielding scoring drives on the visitors' first three drives, the Cardinals (10-1) shut the Wabash offense down on five of its final six possessions and outscored the Little Giants, 30-3, from the middle of the second period on.
"Anytime you win a playoff game against a program of that caliber, you have to be happy," said North Central head coach Jeff Thorne. "I'm really proud of this team and the leadership from our seniors. We're pleased to be moving on."
Tearing through the Wabash defense all afternoon long was running back Ethan Greenfield, who ran the ball 29 times for a single-game school-record 301 yards and five touchdowns. Greenfield established new North Central single-season records for rushing yards (1,609), all-purpose yards (1,955), rushing touchdowns (22), total touchdowns (24) and points scored (144) before leaving the game with the outcome in hand midway through the fourth quarter.
"It was a good feeling from the get-go, seeing the huge holes our offensive line was opening up," Greenfield said. "As a collective unit, we all just had a great game. There have been a ton of great backs to come through here, and to see my name up with theirs is really a blessing, because they paved the way for this program and how great it is and how we run the ball. Hopefully, I brought honor to them."
Greenfield opened the game by running for a 31-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage before capping the day's first offensive drive with a four-yard touchdown run. Wabash (7-4), however, responded in kind with a score of its own. Facing fourth down-and-19, quarterback Liam Thompson fired the ball to the end zone and found wideout Nick Hamman for a 38-yard score. The Little Giants' two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the hosts in front, 7-6.
Greenfield began the ensuing drive with a 38-yard run and concluded it with a two-yard score. Wabash countered with kicker Schuyler Nehrig's 44-yard field goal, but Greenfield crossed the goal line from six yards out with under a minute left in the opening period, boosting the Cardinals' lead to 21-9. Nehrig added a 41-yard field goal early in the second period before Greenfield ran the ball five times in a six-play drive and capped the first half scoring with a four-yard TD run to send North Central into the half with a 28-12 advantage.
Nehrig connected on a 28-yard attempt on the opening drive of the second half, which wound up being Wabash's final score of the day. North Central kicker Magnus Meyer followed with a 29-yard field goal on the next possession before Greenfield closed the third period with a five-yard TD run.
Broc Rutter completed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Kamienski early in the fourth quarter before Zach Garrett closed the scoring with a 20-yard TD run with 6:59 to play. The Cardinals, who entered the game ranked first nationwide among Division III teams in total offense and scoring offense, finished the day with 588 total yards, including a season-best 358 yards on the ground.
"We go into every game wanting to be balanced in terms of the overall yardage we end up with," Thorne said. "They dropped a lot of guys into coverage and Broc did a great job of not forcing things, and you can't do what we've done this year without an offensive line that plays at a high level."
Rutter finished the day 17 of 19 passing for 230 yards, hitting Kamienski nine times for 163 yards. Bryan Beauchamp led the North Central defense with 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss, while Talha Ayhan recorded two quarterback sacks and Jake Beesley intercepted his team-leading third pass of the year.
The Cardinals travel to face the No. 2-ranked University of Mount Union (Ohio) in the second round of the postseason on Saturday. The Purple Raiders (11-0) defeated Hanover College (Indiana), 65-14, in their first-round matchup. Kickoff at Mount Union Stadium is scheduled for 12:00 noon Eastern time.