North Central College football ready to face big crowd, Wartburg defense in semifinal

There have been some powerful dynasties in Division III football. Mount Union or Wisconsin-Whitewater won every championship from 2005-15 and played each other in the title game nine times.

So this year's field is unusual. Defending champion North Central is the veteran, while its opponent in Saturday's semifinal, Wartburg (Iowa), has never been to the title game. On the other side of the bracket, both teams - Randolph-Macon and SUNY-Cortland - are in the semifinals for the first time.

North Central (13-0) will play at Wartburg (13-0) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, with the game available on ESPN+.

"It doesn't get easier to win championships, it gets harder, so you really have to tip your hat to Mount Union, Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor, those schools that showed up there for so many years," North Central coach Brad Spencer said. "I think it's exciting there are some new teams showing up."

Homefield edge

North Central is expecting a lively atmosphere Saturday. Wartburg is hosting a semifinal for the first time and drew the largest crowd of the four quarterfinals last week. Spencer said one of his assistant coaches worked at Wartburg in 2021.

"He's been able to let us know what to expect," Spencer said. "I certainly expect a packed crowd and people to be really excited. We're excited to go into that atmosphere. It's kind of like the 2019 semifinal when we flew out East to Muhlenberg (in Allentown, Pennsylvania), had a packed house, everybody's yelling at you."

Wartburg has the top-ranked rush defense in Division III and a Gagliardi Trophy finalist in linebacker Owen Grover. North Central quarterback Luke Lehnen is another of the five finalists.

While the other three quarterfinal games saw at least 75 points scored, Wartburg fell behind Whitewater 21-3 last week and got enough defensive stops to rally for a 31-28 win.

Goal-line swipe

Spencer reflected on last week's defensive play of the game. With the score tied 7-7 in the first quarter, Oswego's Julian Bell stripped the ball from a La Crosse runner just before the goal line and the it rolled out of the end zone for a touchback. Bell actually missed making a tackle earlier in the play, but stayed in pursuit and forced the fumble.

Joe Sacco scored on an 80-yard run on the very next play and North Central led the rest of the way, though La Crosse did get within 6 in the fourth quarter.

"There was not another half-yard, it would have been a touchdown," Spencer said. "That was one of the most outstanding defensive plays I've seen in my 20 years of coaching because it combines hustle, heart, discipline, playing till the whistle and playing for your teammates. Perhaps more importantly, it brings into account rising to the occasion and making a play."

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