THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — North Central (Ill.) jumped to a fast start and blew past Cal Lutheran 41-21 at William Rolland Stadium in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Cardinals (9-2) won for the fifth consecutive time in the first round of the postseason, putting up 528 total yards and establishing control early with a 24-point first quarter.
“I thought our guys played really hard,” North Central head coach John Thorne said. “They were definitely ready when the game started. The offense got going early and the defense got several stops. The guys did a good job running the clock down in the second half.
“I thought Cal Lutheran played a great game. It was a lot closer than the score shows. We made some big plays, and they just missed on some of their opportunities for big plays, partially because our guys made it happen.”
North Central running back Nick Kukuc gained a career-high 250 yards on 20 carries, coming up just 10 yards short of the Cardinals’ single-game record.
“We knew we had to run the ball,” Kukuc said. “The offensive line did great. We had some mistakes here and there, but we know our main focus is to run the ball and we knew we could do that. We did well, but we know we can do better.”
Kukuc took the second play from scrimmage 79 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. The Cardinals fumbled away their next possession, but needed just three plays to score once again after forcing a CLU punt. Quarterback Spencer Stanek completed a 25-yard pass to Ryan Szudarki and handed off to Kukuc for 23 yards before rushing 11 yards on an option run to the end zone for a score.
North Central’s special-teams unit came up big on the next play, forcing a fumble which was recovered by P.J. Crotty at the Kingsmen’s 25-yard line. Kicker Nick Dace came on to knock in a 38-yard field goal with 4:55 on the first-quarter clock, boosting the lead to 17-0.
The Kingsmen got on the board midway through the second quarter, intercepting a pass at their own 33 and scoring on an 11-play, 67-yard drive that ended in a 3-yard run by Ryan Zirbel.
North Central’s Dace closed the half with a 49-yard field goal to send the Cardinals into the half with a 27-7 advantage.
|NORTH CENTRAL (Ill.) VS. CAL LUTHERAN|
North Central opened its final scoring drive at its own 32 after Josh Mitchell intercepted a pass from Kingsmen quarterback Zach Shultis, as Stanek found Chad O’Kane for a 34-yard score on third down.
North Central’s defense held Cal Lutheran to 324 total yards and forced four turnovers while recording four sacks. Joey Michals led the way with nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, while Alex Pirela made eight stops and Josh Beveridge recorded two sacks to give him a team-high 7.5 for the season.
“Getting the job done was the game plan our coaches put together,” Michals said. “We knew they were a great offensive team, and they showed it. We just wanted to go about our business like we do every week. Our defensive line played great and the secondary did a great job as well. I think everyone just played hard and the game plan was what did it for us.”
Stanek completed 13 of 19 passes for 236 yards, while Stolzenburg hauled in a career-high 121 yards on four catches. The Cardinals recorded 26 first downs and did not punt.
Shultis completed 18 of 26 passes for 171 yards, while receiver Eric Rogers caught nine passes for 111 yards and two scores and Romello Goodman paced Cal Lutheran’s ground game with 70 yards on 16 carries. Dontaie Ferguson led the Kingsmen with a game-high 11 tackles.
The Cardinals advanced to the second round against Linfield.
“It’s going to be a lot of travel involved,” Thorne said. “We need these guys to be able to finish their final exams, and we’re looking forward to studying the tapes and trying to figure out a game plan and watching our guys execute it.”
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