North Central College looked ready to play Saturday afternoon. Wheaton didn't.
"You can't come out for a title fight flat-footed," Thunder coach Mike Swider said.
While Wheaton stood flat-footed, the Cardinals delivered the knockout blow in the first half, then kept the Thunder in the corner in the second half for a 28-6 victory in Wheaton.
The victory let the Cardinals (9-0, 6-0 CCIW) keep possession of the rivalry's Little Brass Bell; gave them a share of the league title for a fifth consecutive year with a chance to win it outright next week against North Park; gave them the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs; and gave coach John Thorne his 75th win at North Central, the most in school history.
"They're a great program. They've got fabulous players. Really great coaches. So we're very proud of our guys. They did a wonderful job," said Thorne, now 75-21 since leaving Wheaton Warrenville South High School.
Andy Stuursma's 9-yard touchdown catch from Spencer Stanek gave North Central a 7-0 lead less than six minutes into the game. With 2:37 left in the first quarter, Jordan Tassio (Naperville North), operating out of the Wildcat formation, threw a 19-yard TD pass to Kyle Fiedorowicz.
Wheaton broke the shutout with a 39-yard Scott Roche field goal in the second quarter, but Nick Kukuc (Naperville Central) gave the Cardinals a 21-3 lead at halftime with a 20-yard TD run.
"The offense came out very strong. It was great to see it," Thorne said.
"When you're playing a good team, you can't dig a hole like that," added Swider, who said he was very happy with his team's second-half play. "I thought once we settled in, we played better. We just dug ourselves a big hole in the first half."
Wheaton settled for another Roche field goal in the fourth quarter before the Cardinals put the game away with another Stanek-to-Stuursma connection.
"It's a huge win," Tassio said. "We've been working all off-season in the weight room, getting faster, everything, for this game right here. We always want to play them for the conference championship."
Wheaton played without injured quarterback Jordan Roberts. In his place Garrett Meador was 15-of-35 passing for 131 yards, but he was sacked 3 times and threw 2 interceptions to North Central defensive back Josh McLeod (Lisle).
Wheaton (8-1, 5-1) plays at Millikin next week.
"It's easier to bounce back than you think it is because if you win next week you're probably in the playoffs," Swider said. "There's still a lot to play for."