Everything you need to know about North Central’s return to Stagg Bowl

There aren’t many winning traditions in Chicago sports these days.

So it’s a big deal for North Central to be making its fourth straight appearance in the Stagg Bowl, the Division III championship game, against SUNY-Cortland (6 p.m., Friday, ESPNU).

The defending champs are riding a 29-game win streak, they’ve gone 54-1 in the last 55 games and haven’t lost since the 2021 Stagg Bowl.

The Cardinals were pushed last week in the semifinals, but hung on to beat Wartburg (Iowa) 34-27. After falling behind 26-7, the host Knights rallied to take a 27-26 lead early in the fourth quarter.

North Central had to punt on its next possession, but got a defensive stop and quarterback Luke Lehnen found Joey Lombardi for a 54-yard gain, setting up Joe Sacco’s 4-yard TD run with 5:34 left. The Cardinals’ defense then got two huge stops – a fourth-and-1 at the 5-yard line, then a fourth-and-3 at the 21 – to clinch the win.

To prepare you for the Stagg Bowl, here are 20 quick facts about the matchup:

1. The game will be played in Salem, Virginia, which is next door to Roanoke on the east side of the state. Salem Stadium, with seating for 7,157, hosted the Division III title game every year from 1993-2017.

2. This is North Central’s fourth straight appearance in the title game, and it will have played Stagg Bowls in four cities. The Cardinals won their first title in 2019 at Shenandoah, Texas; lost the 2021 championship in Canton, Ohio; then took back the trophy last year in Annapolis, Maryland. There was no Division III season in 2020.

3. Second-year coach Brad Spencer has spent his entire adult life at North Central. He played wide receiver at the school from 2000-04, then became receivers coach when his playing career ended. He was promoted to offensive coordinator and became coach last year when Jeff Thorne left for a job at Western Michigan.

4. North Central’s coordinators also played for the Cardinals – defensive boss Shane Dierking and offensive coordinator Eric Stuedemann. Ethan Greenfield, last year’s Gagliardi Trophy winner as the best player in Division III, is now on the staff as running backs coach.

5. Junior QB Lehnen (Chatham Glenwood HS) is one of five finalists for the 2023 Gagliardi Trophy, which will be announced Friday. A third-year starter, Lehnen has thrown for 3,200 yards and 46 touchdowns, while running for 735 yards. His passer rating of 270.21 is literally off the charts.

6. Running back Sacco (St. Edward) ranks No. 2 in the nation with both 1,661 rushing yards and 9.7 yards per carry. He’s averaged 134 yards in North Central’s four playoff wins.

7. Top receiver DeAngelo Hardy (Lakes) will be playing in his fourth Stagg Bowl. He had a kickoff return touchdown in the 2021 game, and he caught 3 passes for 107 yards and 2 TDs in last year’s win over Mount Union.

8. North Central has some injury concerns on defense. Defensive lineman Martin Egbo, the CCIW defensive player of the year, left last week’s win early, while all-conference defensive back Antwain Walker (Oswego East) missed the game. The Cardinals’ leading tacklers on the season are linebacker B.J. Adamchik and safety Julian Bell (Oswego).

9. Cortland QB Zac Boyes is following in the footsteps of his father Jerry. As a QB at Ithaca College, Jerry Boyes played in the Stagg Bowl in 1974 and ‘75. losing both games. He was head coach at Division III Buffalo State from 1986-2018.

10. Zac Boyes ranks second in the nation with 3,671 passing yards and was named Region 2 offensive player of the year. His favorite target is Cole Burgess (76 catches, 1,241 yards). Running back Jaden AlfanoStJohn is the top rusher with 1,378 yards.

11. When the Division III playoff bracket was announced, there were concerns about the best teams being unevenly spread. As an illustration, North Central beat No. 4 Trinity (Tex.), No. 6 Wisconsin-La Crosse and No. 3 Wartburg the past three weeks. SUNY-Cortland was ranked No. 13 in the final AFCA D3 poll.

12. By the numbers, North Central ranks No. 1 in Division III in both scoring offense at 60.1 points and total offense with 566.4 yards per game. Cortland is No. 8 in scoring offense (46.8) and No. 6 in total offense (509.6). North Central ranks No. 28 in total defense (267.3), while Cortland is No. 49 (300.3).

13. During the past 17 seasons, the Division III trophy has been awarded to just four schools: Mount Union (Ohio) and Wisconsin-Whitewater won six each, Mary Hardin-Baylor (Tex.) won three and North Central two. SUNY-Cortland had never made it to the semifinals before this year.

14. SUNY-Cortland is located in Central New York, roughly halfway between Ithaca and Syracuse. A public school with an enrollment of roughly 6,800, Cortland is about three times the size of North Central.

15. The Red Dragons had some close calls early in the playoffs, beating Endicott (Mass.) 23-17, then Grove City (Pa.) 25-24. They rolled in the last two games, knocking off Alma (Mich.) 58-41 and Randolph-Macon (Va.) 49-14. Cortland played three of those four games on the road, so the Dragons logged plenty of bus miles during the past month.

16. Just six of the 122 players listed on SUNY-Cortland’s roster reside in states other than New York.

17. Cortland coach Curt Fitzpatrick was hired just before the pandemic hit in 2020 and has posted a 33-4 record in three seasons. He previously spent seven years as head coach at SUNY- Morrisville.

18. The most memorable moment for Cortland football was probably in 2010 when the school hosted New York Jets training camp and was the setting for a memorable season of “Hard Knocks” featuring coach Rex Ryan.

19. Cortland has its own version of the historic North Central-Wheaton trophy game. The Red Dragons play Ithaca every year for the Cortaca Jug. The teams played their 2022 regular season game at Yankee Stadium and the 2019 contest at MetLife Stadium. The game at MetLife set a Division III attendance record with 45,161.

20. The mayors of Naperville and Cortland, N.Y. have announced a wager where the losing mayor must wear the winning team’s jersey at a city council meeting. Naperville mayor Scott Wehrli is a North Central alum. Both teams wear red, so hopefully the school’s name will be written across the chest.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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.