North Central’s streak ends as late 2-point try fails

North Central’s Brad Spencer was 29-0 as a head coach heading into Friday’s Stagg Bowl, the Division III championship game, against SUNY-Cortland.

The game was low-scoring, then high-scoring and decided in the final minute. Spencer rightfully had confidence in his powerful offense to pick up 3 yards for a go-ahead 2-point conversion, but it wasn’t meant to be. North Central’s bid for a third national title in four seasons ended with a 38-37 loss in Salem, Virginia.

Cortland (14-1) was making its first appearance in the Stagg Bowl and brought the trophy back to the Northeast for the first time in three decades.

Trailing by 7 late in the fourth quarter, North Central got the big play it needed when DeAngelo Hardy caught a 60-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Luke Lehnen with 1:20 remaining.

North Central College at Stagg Bowl Friday, Dec. 15, 2023 Steve Woltmann/North Central College

As Spencer decided to go for 2, Cortland coach Curt Fitzpatrick made a shrewd move, calling time out just before the snap of the ball, which caused North Central to reveal its play, a rollout to the wide side of the field.

After the timeout, the Cardinals decided to change it up, but maybe they should have stuck with the original plan. Lehnen ran to the boundary side, away from his receivers, and Cortland’s defense was waiting for him. Lehnen was tackled well short of the goal line. Once the Red Dragons recovered the onside kick, it was just a matter of running out the clock.

The game had an odd flow. North Central led just 7-3 at halftime, then the two offenses took over in the second half. Cortland scored on the opening drive of the third quarter to take the lead and kept the Cardinals on their heels the rest of the way.

Ultimately, the difference was three North Central drives that reached the Cortland 10-yard line but resulted in a total of 3 points. That included the first two drives of the game.

North Central College at Stagg Bowl Friday, Dec. 15, 2023 Steve Woltmann/North Central College

One thing Cortland’s defense did well was chase people down. Running backs Joe Sacco and Charles Coleman both broke loose for long runs in the first quarter, but the Red Dragons made the tackles and forced North Central to run more plays rather than score a long TD. The Cardinals failed on fourth down both times.

Then in the second half, Sacco sprinted down the home sideline for a 49-yard run and was brought down by an ankle tackle at the 20-yard line. On that drive North Central settled for a short field goal, which tied the score at 17 with 3:05 left in the third quarter.

The Cardinals couldn’t get a defensive stop and never again held the lead. Lehnen’s 64-yard touchdown run made it 31-31 with 7:16 left.

But Cortland converted a fourth-and-5 on its next drive, and went ahead on a 21-yard pass from QB Zac Boyes to Cole Burgess with 1:41 left.

Boyes, whose father, Jerry, played in two Division III title games for Ithaca, threw for 349 yards and ran for 123. Burgess finished with 11 catches for 134 receiving yards.

North Central College at Stagg Bowl Friday, Dec. 15, 2023 Steve Woltmann/North Central College

Before the game Lehnen was announced as the winner of the Gagliardi Trophy, essentially the Division III Heisman. It gave North Central three winners, joining running back Ethan Greenfield last year and quarterback Broc Rutter in 2019.

Lehnen completed 8 of 17 passes for 179 yards and rushed for 115. Sacco finished with 159 yards on 15 carries. Hardy, who played in four Stagg Bowls, had 5 catches for 146 yards.

Over the past four seasons, North Central won national championships in 2019 and ‘22, while finishing second in ‘21 and ‘23. There was no Division III season in 2020.

A couple of North Central all-conference defenders were questionable coming in. Defensive end Martin Egbo played, while defensive back Antwain Walker did not.

The low-scoring first half was out of character, to say the least. North Central scored at least 20 points in the opening quarter in eight of their 14 games. Friday’s first quarter ended 0-0. During the first four playoff games, the Cardinals averaged 34.3 points in first halves.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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