North Central’s Spencer: ‘Don’t regret going for 2’

An epic Division III title game generated plenty of buzz Friday night, which is a great development for small-school college football.

Amazing game or not, it’s still tough to wind up on the losing end. That’s where North Central found itself, after a heartbreaking 38-37 loss to SUNY-Cortland in Salem, Virginia.

The result snapped North Central’s 29-game winning streak, the Naperville school’s first loss since the 2021 Stagg Bowl. It was the first loss as a head coach for Brad Spencer, who wrapped up his second season.

“I thought our guys battled their butts off,” Spencer said after the game. “At the end of the day, I didn’t get it done as a head coach, it’s my fault.”

Spencer made a bold call, going for the two-point conversion with 1:20 left after a 60-yard touchdown pass from Luke Lehnen to DeAngelo Hardy brought the Cardinals within 38-37.

“I don’t regret going for 2,” Spencer said. “I do wish I would have made a better call. So again, that’s on me. That was the thought process – felt like we had momentum, felt like our guys were primed and ready, felt like we could gain 3 yards.

“I just had ultimate confidence in our players to get it done. I need to make a better play call there.”

North Central lined up with two receivers on the right side of the formation and Lehnen rolled out in that direction, but the play stopped because Cortland coach Curt Fitzpatrick called time out just before the snap of the ball. So both sides had a chance to see what the other was doing, then had a minute to rethink their plans.

The Cardinals switched plays to Lehnen running left and the defense was waiting. He was stopped well short of the goal line. After recovering the onside kick, Cortland ran out the clock.

“We felt like once the time out was called, there was a better advantage in numbers in the other direction,” Spencer said. “It looked like they were trying to get to some sort of double-team on DeAngelo, which wouldn’t have made that play as likely perhaps to be open. So that’s what moved us away from that play call.”

The 2-point play was a pivotal moment, but a bigger issue for North Central was two empty trips inside the 10-yard line during the first half. Then a third drive stalled inside the 10 late in the third quarter and the Cardinals settled for a field goal to tie the score 17-17. Both teams scored 3 touchdowns in the fourth quarter and Lehnen’s 64-yard run tied the score at 31-31 with 7:16 left.

On the opening drive of the game, North Central had a first down at the 11-yard line, but was pushed back by a personal foul penalty. Spencer decided to go for it on fourth-and-17 at the 18-yard line. Lehnen scrambled and had Hardy open in the end zone, but threw it too high.

“That’s a throw I feel like I’m making nine out of 10 times, and that was the one time I didn’t make it,” said Lehnen, who was named Gagliardi Trophy winner, for the best player in Division III. “The difference was we didn’t finish drives in the first quarter, first half.”

North Central’s second drive ended when Lehnen was sacked on fourth-and-four at the 9-yard line. The Cardinals led 7-3 at halftime, then the offenses took over in the second half. North Central had the lead in total yardage 583-518.

“We’re the No. 1 offense in the country, 60 points a game,” Spencer said. “We have a lot of reason to be confident in those guys, and we’ve been aggressive all year. That’s been our m.o. is to be aggressive, big plays, explosive plays. To me, that’s just us being us and I think if we would get away from it, then it’s not being who we are.

“I’d rather go down fighting and being who we are and putting trust in our players. So that’s where those decisions come from. The only thing I would take back is being better as the playcaller and the head coach and making sure we’re in a better spot to get those.”

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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