North Central falls 1 point short in national semifinal
ALLIANCE, Ohio — North Central coach John Thorne not only left Mount Union Stadium with a 41-40 loss in the Division III football semifinals, but he also will carry a regret with him about one of his calls late in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals just watched the defending national champion Mount Union go down the field and take the lead with five minutes remaining Saturday afternoon. Undaunted by the task of having to come from behind against Mount Union, North Central put together an impressive drive that featured an incredible sideline catch by Peter Sorenson at the 1-yard line.
After a slight delay to review the replay, Sorenson did make the catch and get a foot down at the 1. On the very next play senior quarterback handed the ball off to Matt Randolph, who scored his third rushing touchdown in the second half, and the Cardinals had regained the lead with 1:38 left in the game.
Thorne's regret wasn't getting the touchdown, but instead, when his team got the score.
"Looking back, we probably left too much time on the clock," Thorne said. "I thought about maybe running a play or two to run time off the clock, but I didn't want to get stuck not getting a touchdown on third down and having to kick a field goal. I would have probably wondered what would have happened on first and second down."
Instead, Thorne had to watch Mount Union quarterback Kevin Burke do what he does best — win games. Burke, one of four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy for the best player in Division III, threw a 26-yard touchdown pass just 31 seconds after Randolph's score to give Mount Union a 41-40 win in a game played under snowy conditions from start to finish.
"This was a great game and North Central was a very worthy opponent," said Mount Union coach Vince Kehres. "They gave us everything we could handle today."
The Cardinals didn't seem fazed by their first trip to the semifinal, nor by facing the 11-time national champions on their home field. North Central become the third team to score on its opening drive this season against Mount Union and held leads of 7-0 and 10-7 in the first quarter.
The Purple Raiders answered the scores and took a 13-10 lead into the second quarter. The Cardinals regained the lead 16-13 on Sorenson's second touchdown catch before giving up 14 straight points to fall behind 27-16 in the middle of the third quarter. Mount Union (14-0) got an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Jonathan Gonell and a rushing score by Burke to create the only double figure lead of the game. Unlike most teams in the past, North Central didn't fold.
The Cardinals scored three straight touchdowns, including a pair of 1-yard runs by Randolph, and got a fumble recovery in the end zone when a bad snap on a punt was recovered by Kolton Kuczynski for a 34-27 lead with 11:06 remaining in the game.
Randolph, who came into the game for injured starter Ryan Kent in the first half, said the focus was never on the scoreboard at any point in the game.
"We didn't look at the clock or the scoreboard. We just kept the focus on us and what we needed to do," Randolph said. "We had to come together as a team and regroup."
The lead changed hands three times in the final five minutes starting with Mount Union taking a 35-34 lead after a touchdown and 2-point conversion run. After North Central took its final lead with 98 seconds left, the Purple Raiders answered with a 3-play, 65-yard drive that saw Burke hit Mike Collichio in the back of the end zone with 1:07 left to make it 41-40.
The Cardinals' final attempt to make playoff history fell short inside the Purple Raiders 10 when Stanek's pass was knocked down on fourth down. Stanek, who entered the game as the nation's top-rated passer, finished 19 of 37 for 198 yards with 2 touchdowns and also threw his second interception of the season.
"Mount Union is a great team and I know we will always remember this opportunity to play against the best," Stanek said. "We're disappointed with the outcome and could have probably made just a few more plays."
North Central didn't help its cause by missing three extra points and failing to execute on a pair of 2-point conversions.
"We've got the third-best kicker in NCAA history in terms of kicking extra points and field goals," Thorne said. "He lost his footing on a couple of them (which were blocked) and just hooked the other to the right. I am very proud of how we fought back against a fantastic football team."
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