It was a game that surpassed all the records, benchmarks and superlative descriptions of a college football game, postseason or otherwise, and the torrid pace set by the offenses of both teams left most spectators figuring the outcome would come down to the last team to possess the ball.
And that was the case in North Central College's second-round NCAA Division III playoff game at the University of Mount Union on Saturday, but after all the points and yards had been piled up, it was a defensive stand which sealed the outcome for the fifth-ranked Cardinals, who took down the Purple Raiders, 59-52, to advance to next week's national quarterfinal.
After rolling up nearly 700 yards of offense, the Cardinals found the issue still in doubt as Mount Union took possession on its own 40-yard line with 2:39 to play. A 50-yard pass from D'Angelo Fulford to Wayne Ruby put the Purple Raiders in striking distance, but Fulford was brought down for a loss once by Ben Wong and twice by Tommy Hyland before a fourth-down pass was intercepted by Jake Beesley in the end zone with just two seconds on the clock.
"I've never been a part of a game like that one," said North Central head coach Jeff Thorne. "That was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. Mount Union is a first-class organization from top to bottom, I have nothing but respect for them. I'm beyond elated with the way our guys played. At the end of the game, that's our mantra, 'I am a champion and I refuse to lose.' We had some guys put the team on their back and say, 'we're not losing today.'"
For Mount Union (11-1), ranked No. 1 by D3football.com and No. 2 by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) heading into the game and having not faced a deficit at any point in any game this season before Saturday, it marks the first time since 1994 that it will not advance past the second round, and it took every inch of the finest offensive performance ever put forth by a North Central team to make it happen.
The Cardinals gained a school-record 699 yards of total offense, including a school-record 522 passing yards fron quarterback Broc Rutter, whose five touchdown passes give him a single-season record 47 this year. Andrew Kamienski hauled in a career-high 256 yards on 12 catches to become the first Cardinal to record more than 200 receiving yards in a game since 2005 and DeAngelo Hardy easily surpassed the game-high totals of his young career with 186 yards on eight receptions.
North Central (11-1) took its first lead of the contest early in the second period as Rutter delivered a 24-yard touchdown pass to running back Ethan Greenfield, giving the visitors a 21-20 advantage with 12:05 to play in the first half. Hyland forced a fumble on the ensuing possession which was recovered by Beesley at the Mount Union 45. Facing fourth down-and-six at the 41, Rutter connected with Kamienski on a slant pattern, and the junior eluded a would-be tackler to run uncontested to the goal line to extend the lead to 28-20. The Raiders, however, closed the half with 18 unanswered points and carried a 38-28 advantage into the half after gaining 460 yards in the first half alone.
"Coach (Shane) Dierking, Coach (Tim) Janecek and our defensive staff did a great job at halftime. We made an adjustment to give a little bit more help defending the pass, and our guys did a great job of executing that adjustment and making them go in a different direction."
The Cardinals struck quickly to start the second half, and once again it was a quick pass to Kamienski that did the damage, this time from 71 yards out. Mount Union needed just 35 seconds to respond with a 66-yard TD pass from Fulford to Ruby, and the following series saw the Raiders back North Central up in to a third-and-28 situation at its own eight-yard line.
Rutter, however, once again proved immune to the pressure of the moment, firing a 30-yard strike to Hardy to move the sticks, then hitting Kamienski for 59 yards to set up first-and-goal. Greenfield covered the remaining distance on the next play to make it a 45-42 game with 8:56 on the third-quarter clock.
"We came in with the mindset that it was going to be a multi-round battle and we just had to keep going one drive at a time," Rutter said. "There was never a moment where we flinched. We were down 10, and just said, 'cool, let's get the ball and go score.' The whole team came out and fought all day long, and there was not one ounce of doubt this week that we could come here and compete."
The Cardinals forced their second turnover of the day on the next possessiion, as Talha Ayhan pounced on a fumble at the North Central 40-yard line. The visitors put together a 10-play, 60-yard drive which ate up 5:22 (the longest drive of the day by either team) and took the lead once again at 49-45 when Rutter found Kamienski at the back of the end zone for a six-yard score, Kamienski's fourth of the day.
Mount Union was forced to bring its punter on for the first time on its next drive, and Rutter found a new way to the goal line by heaving a 56-yard completion to Khori Blair before calling his own number for a 10-yard score, extending the lead to 56-45 with 14:16 to play. The ensuing kickoff was returned 47 yards by KJ Redmon, enabling the Raiders to advance 41 yards in just three plays and score on a 12-yard pass from Fulford to Josh Petrucelli. North Central responded with a nine-play, 57-yard drive and brought on kicker Magnus Meyer for a 35-yard field goal. Meyer split the uprights with the kick, matching his longest made attempt of the season.
Greenfield finished with 130 rushing yards on 27 carries, while Dakota Cremeens finished with a team-high eight tackles.
Mount Union, which gained 713 total yards in the game, saw Fulford complete 23 of 35 passes for 549 yards while also running for 139 yards on 20 carries. Justin Hill made seven catches for 221 yards and Mitch O'Hara paced the Raiders' defense with 12 tackles.
The Cardinals advance to take on ninth-ranked Delaware Valley University (Pennsylvania), a 45-10 second-round winner over Wesley College (Delaware). The game will kick off at noon local time on Saturday at a site to be determined.