North Central College advances to fourth straight Division III national final

In a season when it made a routine out of runaway victories and eye-popping point totals, the North Central College football team cemented its spot in a fourth straight national championship game on defense with the contest hanging in the balance Saturday.

The top-ranked Cardinals outlasted the host Wartburg College Knights 34-27 in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III Football Championship.

After stopping the Cardinals on four straight possessions to open the second half, the Knights (13-1) took the lead on running back Hunter Clasen's 11-yard touchdown run with 12:17 to play. Wartburg's 27-26 lead marked the first time North Central has trailed in a game in 2023.

The Cardinals were forced to punt on the ensuing possession, giving the hosts the ball once again at their own 38-yard line with 8:49 to play.

On third down-and-6 at the North Central 45-yard line, Zack Orr stepped in front of a pass by Knights quarterback Nile McLaughlin and intercepted the ball to give the Cardinals possession at their own 37 with 7:36 to play. On the next play, North Central quarterback Luke Lehnen fired a deep pass to Joey Lombardi, whose leaping, spinning catch gained 54 yards and set the visitors up with first-and-goal at the Knights' 9-yard line.

Three plays later, Joe Sacco ran 4 yards for a score, his second of the day, and DeAngelo Hardy followed with a 2-point conversion run to move North Central back in front with 5:40 left.

The Cardinals (14-0) had to make two more fourth-down stops before the outcome was determined. Wartburg advanced to the North Central 5-yard line and went to Clasen again on fourth down, but the Cardinals' line held and ushered the Knights' offense off the field after gaining 62 yards on 10 plays.

North Central was forced to punt, providing the home team a final scoring opportunity at the Cardinals' 46 with 2:02 on the clock. McLaughlin completed two passes to Carter Henry and ran 9 yards for a first down before the Knights faced fourth down-and-3 at the North Central 21 with 30 seconds to go. McLaughlin completed a pass to Clasen, but Orr made the tackle for a 1-yard loss to seal the win.

North Central took control of the contest early, scoring the game's first 20 points. The Cardinals put together a 15-play, 93-yard drive following a Wartburg punt, running on every play, before Sacco opened the scoring with an 8-yard touchdown run after a drive which consumed more than eight minutes.

The Knights' next drive ended with a punt as well, but North Central's Jordan Chisum broke through the line and blocked the kick, which Thomas Skokna recovered at the Wartburg 21. Just two plays later, Lehnen darted to his right to extend a play and found Lombardi in the end zone for a second score and a 13-0 advantage.

Sacco finished with 126 rushing yards on a personal-high 28 carries, while Lehnen completed 12 of 19 passes for 222 yards. Julian Bell and Angelo Cusumano paced the Cardinals' defense with 8 tackles each while Orr and Jahron Williams each finished with 7.

The Cardinals move on to the national championship game for the fourth straight season, taking on Cortland State University (New York). The Red Dragons (13-1), ranked 11th by and 13th by the American Football Coaches Association at the close of the regular season, defeated Randolph-Macon College (Virginia) 49-14 in their semifinal game. Stagg Bowl 50 will kick off at 6 p.m. Friday at Salem Stadium in Salem, Virginia.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.