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updated: 11/30/2013 8:44 PM

Kent, North Central offense put up big numbers

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By Bill Stone
Daily Herald Correspondent

North Central College junior running back Ryan Kent has opted for the bearded look since the start of football training camp.

"I stopped trimming it when (senior offensive tackle) Greg Whalen dared me to do it. It's been about a month now," Kent said.

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About the only thing growing faster for the Cardinals is their momentum in the NCAA Division III football playoffs.

Saturday was another game for the record books as the Cardinals advanced to the quarterfinals for only the second time in program history with a 52-24 victory over Wisconsin-Platteville in Naperville.

North Central (12-0) -- ranked No. 4 in the final D3football.com and American Football Coaches Association polls entering the playoffs -- meets No. 6 Bethel University (12-0) at noon Dec. 7. The Cardinals anticipate playing in Minnesota, but the game's location has not been officially determined.

The Cardinals, two victories from the national finals Dec. 20 in Salem, Va., reached the quarterfinals in 2010 but lost in the second round the past two seasons.

"Today will be a sense of relief (for advancing), but tomorrow it's back to work," senior linebacker Alex Tripp said. "We're really looking forward to taking the next steps and fulfilling our prophecy that we had freshman year with (coach John Thorne) saying we were Salem Warriors."

North Central led 35-17 at halftime and scored on six of its first seven possessions en route to 596 yards of total offense, a single-game school playoff record, and new single-season marks of 558 points and 76 TDs.

Kent, a York High School graduate, tied the single-game school record of 4 rushing touchdowns and had 257 rushing yards, 3 shy of the single-game school record.

"The offense did some great things. The defense certainly did some really great things," Thorne said. "It has very, very hard (in the second round) and it was hard today, but the guys were able to get it done."

Kent had a career-high 27 carries and scored on runs of 14, 24 and 60 yards in the first half and 27 in the third quarter to open a 42-17 lead. Kent just missed the single-game rushing record of 260 yards shared by Jeremy Walsh in 2001 and Steven Holden in 2004.

Kent previously rushed as many as 20 times twice this season and for as many as 176 yards against Bethel in 2011.

"I think the offensive line did a great job. You could drive trucks through some of those holes," Kent said.

"We have a bunch of great backs so we usually go by committee. I was lucky to get the opportunities that I had. When there are holes that big, it's pretty easy to get through them and then you just make moves in the second level."

Fifth-year senior quarterback Spencer Stanek passed for 274 yards and three TDs, all to Chad O'Kane for 83, 7 and 4 yards.

Facing second and 18 on the game's first possession, Stanek hooked up with O'Kane in stride just shy of midfield for the 83-yard TD pass play, the longest in both players' careers. Just 36 seconds into the game, North Central led 7-0.

"That was a great catch and run by Chad. I just put it up there, gave Chad a chance and had great blocking (that) allowed me to step up," Stanek said. "Any time you can get a huge play like that on your first drive, that's a huge momentum swing."

The Cardinals' defense also responded early. No. 7/9 UWP marched to the 16 on its first drive behind standout senior quarterback John Kelly, but Jason Callahan intercepted him in the end zone on a second-down pass.

"(That was) a huge interception by Jason Callahan on that very first drive that gave us an awful lot of momentum that continued throughout the rest of the game," Thorne said.

With 1,034 yards and 10 rushing TDs, Kent becomes the fifth North Central player to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Stanek now is at 3,048 passing yards, the second-best total in program history, with a single-season school record 39 TD passes and just one interception. Senior Nick Dace, North Central's all-time leading scorer, kicked a 25-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

North Central had 416 total yards by halftime. Kent had 142 yards on 13 carries with TDs on his third, fifth and seventh touches.

"It became pretty obvious early in the game that Ryan was really having a hot hand. He was seeing things, he was hitting the holes decisively and he had a great burst when he got through," Thorne said. "As coaches, when you feel somebody on a roll like that, you want to try to keep feeding him."

The Cardinals' defense excelled often, even though UWP's high-powered offense became the first to score three TDs against them this season. After Callahan's pick, the defense held in the red zone later in the first quarter for a 37-yard field goal to keep the lead at 14-3.

The Pioneers closed to 42-24 in the third quarter and were driving again, but on fourth-and-4 at the 21 to start the fourth quarter, Tripp sacked Kelly.

Tripp and Nick Slezak each had 10 tackles. Starting outside linebacker Michael Monterrubio returned after separating his shoulder against Wheaton Nov. 9.

UWP, which entered Saturday averaging 505 total yards and 352.6 passing yards per game, finished with 432. Kelly was 21 for 37 passing for 249 yards and two TD passes to Ryley Bailey to finish the season with 3,626 passing yards and 36 TDs.

"If I had to rank (North Central), I'd say they're No. 2, seeing what I've seen in Division III," UWP coach Mike Emendorfer said. "I think that they have the team to compete and continue competing. They have all of the weapons, and not just offense."

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