After winning its second-round game in as wild an offensive shootout as the NCAA Division III Football Championship has seen, the North Central College Cardinals turned to their defense to put them in position to win their national quarterfinal matchup on Saturday at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.
The fifth-ranked Cardinals held ninth-ranked Delaware Valley University (Pennsylvania) scoreless until early in the second half, allowing the hosts to build an early 17-0 lead and hold on for a 31-14 triumph to send North Central into the second national semifinal in its history and the first since 2013.
"We're thrilled to continue to play," said North Central head coach Jeff Thorne. "I thought our defense was fantastic this week. From the second half last week and throughout this game, they really played great and we're going to need that to continue."
After forcing a punt on the Aggies' first drive of the day, the Cardinals (11-1) got a 23-yard punt return from Nic Rummell which set them up with a short field for what would become the first scoring possession of the contest. North Central marched 45 yards in nine plays, getting a one-yard touchdown plunge from Ethan Greenfield for an early 7-0 lead. Another Delaware Valley punt led to a second straight score for the hosts, as Broc Rutter completed a 25-yard pass to DeAngelo Hardy and a 16-yarder to Alex Rose before finding Hardy once again over the top of the defense for a 40-yard scoring toss. The Cardinals owned a 14-0 advantage with 2:27 still left in the first period.
"I can't say enough about him," Rutter said of Hardy. "He just made play after play after play. It's not surprising to any of us who played seven-on-seven with him this summer. We knew we had to get him involved in the offense quickly, and he made some of the biggest plays in the game today."
North Central's lone score of the second quarter came after safety Dakota Cremeens intercepted a pass from Aggie quarterback Anthony Fontana. Cremeens' subsequent 29-yard return set the Cardinals up at their own 43-yard line with 3:56 left in the first half. The ensuing drive bled all but 22 seconds off the first-half clock and culminated in kicker Magnus Meyer's 22-yard field goal. The Cardinals headed into halftime having allowed DVU to gain just 76 yards of total offense.
The Aggies (11-1) opened their bid to get back into contention once the third quarter began. DVU drove 77 yards in eight plays and found the end zone for the first time on Fontana's nine-yard TD pass to Ryan Norton. Linebacker Ryan Barrett ended the next North Central drive with an interception at the DVU 15-yard line, and Fontana fired a deep pass to tight end Dan Allen two plays later for an 85-yard score to narrow the gap to 17-14 with 9:14 on the third-quarter clock.
North Central counterpunched with a nine-play, 73-yard jaunt and blunted the Aggies' momentum with Rutter's 11-yard scoring pass to Andrew Kamienski. The touchdown catch is Kamienski's 26th this season, tying the all-time Division III single-season record.
The Cardinals ended the next two DVU drives on a fumble recovery by Tim Mayerhofer (after the ball was knocked loose by Tyler Rich) and a failed fourth-down conversion attempt at the North Central 21. The hosts embarked on the longest drive of the day, a 12-play, 79-yard trek that ate up 6:25, and scored on Greenfield's two-yard run with 3:49 to play which effectively put the contest out of reach.
"I'm glad that Coach Thorne and the team trusted me to put me in position to do that job," Greenfield said. "Sustaining those drives really changed the game. Going up against an outstanding defense like that, we did a great job of working together to put up points and hold onto the ball."
North Central ended the day with a 365-324 advantage in total yards and held a more than eight-minute advantage in time of possession. Rutter completed 23 of 33 passes for 263 yards as Hardy made nine grabs for 132 yards for his second straight 100-yard outing and Kamienski made seven catches for 82 yards. Greenfield put up a game-high 93 rushing yards on 28 carries.
Ben Wong finished with a team-best nine tackels, while Mayerhofer finished with eight and Bryan Beauchamp and Jake Beesley each finished with six. Zach Butler and Talha Ayhan each recorded quarterback sacks and Butler also broke up two passes and made a touchdown-saving tackle in kickoff coverage.
Fontana completed 21 of 36 passes for 232 yards, finding Allen six times for 155 yards. Defensive end Anthony Nobile posted two quarterback sacks and a forced fumble.
The Cardinals move on to take on No. 4-ranked Muhlenberg College (13-0) in the semifinals next Saturday, which will mark the first-ever meeting between the two programs. The site of the game and its start time will be announced on Sunday.