Sept. 25, 2010

Courtesy Of North Central Athletics

The North Central College football team allowed for very little late drama in the 2010 season's first encounter with a nationally-ranked opponent on Saturday, steadily pulling away from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for a 20-6 victory at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.

The 11th-ranked Cardinals did not allow a touchdown and limited an Eau Claire offense which averaged 175 rushing yards in its first two games to just 13 yards on the ground. It was third-lowest rushing total ever recorded by a North Central opponent. The hosts yielded just 186 total yards in the game, including just 64 in the first half, and have now held their first three opponents to less than 10 points for the second time in the past 30 years.

After forcing a punt on the game's first possession, North Central (3-0) got a 28-yard punt return by Joe Antonacci to start the Cardinals' first drive at the Blugolds' 33-yard line. Four plays later, however, Eau Claire lineman Dan Kinsella forced a fumble and the visitors regained possession at their own 12.

The next five possessions ended in punts, as neither team was able to venture into its opponents' half of the field. Following a second-quarter punt, the Cardinals began their first scoring drive of the day at their own 32-yard line. A 43-yard pass from Brad Crackel to Steve Hlavac on the second play of the possession set North Central up at the Blugold 30.

Facing a fourth down with one yard to gain, Crackel called his own number for a three-yard run to keep the drive alive, and an 11-yard scamper by Nick Kukuc gave the Cardinals a first-and-goal situation at the five-yard line. On third down, Crackel lofted a five-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Fiedorowicz, breaking a scoreless deadlock with 5:51 to go in the first half.

Eau Claire's fifth punt of the half gave the Cardinals one more possession before the half ended. Antonacci's 13-yard return put North Central at the 50-yard line, but a penalty on the Blugolds advanced the home team to the visitors' 35. The Cardinals drove to within five yards of the goal line before time ran out, and Nick Dace closed the half with a 22-yard field goal to extend North Central's lead to 10-0.

The first five offensive possessions ended in punts as well before Eau Claire (2-1) embarked on its first scoring drive, a 12-play, 40-yard jaunt that included an 18-yard pass from quarterback Austin Neu to receiver David Goodman on third down-and-17. After seeing the drive stall on the North Central 13-yard line, the Blugolds sent in kicker Brandon Raciborski for a 30-yard field goal to get the guests on the board with 1:10 to go in the third period.

North Central responded immediately on the ensuing drive, traveling 65 yards in eight plays to extend its lead to two scores. Crackel's 29-yard pass to Jeff Grunwald left the Cardinals just five yards short of the end zone, and Denzel Thompson covered the remaining distance on the next play for his first collegiate touchdown and a 17-3 advantage.

The Cardinals forced the first of two straight turnovers on Eau Claire's next drive, as Tharryn Wright knocked the ball out of the hands of Blugold tailback Joel Sweeney following a pass reception. Willie Hayes pounced on the ball at the North Central 49, though a personal foul penalty bumped the Cardinals back to their own 34. Seven running plays and a 31-yard pass to Kukuc later, Dace returned to the field and converted an 18-yard field goal for a 20-3 lead with seven minutes left.

The Blugolds took to the air in an attempt to stage a late rally, as Neu completed two passes before going deep to the end zone. Scott Hogan, however, snagged the ball out of the air to bring the North Central offense back onto the field.

The Cardinals ran six straight running plays to advance deep into Eau Claire territory, but Kinsella recovered another North Central fumble and rambled 63 yards down the sideline before being knocked out of bounds. A Cardinal penalty at the end of the play left the Blugolds just six yards from the goal line, but the offense stalled and Raciborski kicked a 23-yard field goal.

North Central outgained the Blugolds, 354-186, including 193 yards on the ground, and owned a 33:30-26:30 edge in time of possession. Crackel completed 12 of 25 passes for 161 yards, throwing five times to Hlavac for 79 yards, while Jordan Tassio led the running game with 70 yards on 15 attempts. Matt Wenger paced the Cardinals' defense with 13 tackles, while Willie Hayes turned in 2 1/2 of North Central's five quarterback sacks.

Sweeney, who averaged 135.5 rushing yards in Eau Claire's first two games, was held to 28 yards on 16 carries, while Neu completed 20 of 31 passes for 173 yards. Andy Neumann and Rick Drews led the Blugolds' defense with six tackles each.

The Cardinals host Carthage College (3-0) next Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 6 p.m.