It'll be power vs. power when North Central meets Mary Hardin-Baylor for Division III crown
You couldn't draw up a better championship matchup than the one that will take place Friday night when North Central College looks to claim a second straight Division III football title against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a private Christian university in Belton, Texas.
Both teams are unbeaten, and the 14-0 Crusaders opened the 2021 campaign ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Cardinals (13-0), who have won 24 straight games, leapfrogged UMHB for the top spot in the rankings after defeating a nationally ranked Wheaton College squad earlier this year.
"It's a great program and they've been here before," North Central College coach Jeff Thorne said as his team prepared for its trip to Canton, Ohio, for the 6 p.m. kickoff at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. "It's a school with a fantastic, legendary coach. They're loaded with talented athletes."
Coach Pete Fredenburg guided UMHB to the NCAA Division III National Championship with a 24-16 victory over Mount Union in Stagg Bowl XLVI in 2018. He has compiled a 216-39 record in 23 seasons as the only head coach in the history of the UMHB football program and he currently ranks among the top five active Division III head coaches in career victories.
UMHB reached this year's finals with a 24-7 defeat of Wisconsin-Whitewater in last week's semis, a game in which the Crusaders scored 17 straight points midway through the second quarter to take control of their game with the Warhawks.
Kyle King opened the scoring with a pair of 9-yard touchdown passes to Brandon Jordan, who had 11 catches for 164 yards. The Crusaders rank third nationally in scoring offense (48.3 points per game) as well as scoring defense (9 points allowed), so the Cardinals know they'll have a challenge on Friday.
"We're gonna have our hands full for sure," Thorne said. "They're a great team on both sides of the ball. They're really balanced and they do a lot of things on offense."
North Central will counter with its own offensive firepower, but also has an experienced, unrelenting defense. Against traditional power Mount Union last week, the Cardinals allowed a touchdown on the opening drive before shutting down the Purple Raiders long enough for them to score 26 straight points en route to an impressive 26-13 win. In September Wheaton College grabbed a 7-0 lead on NCC before getting blanked the rest of the way in the Cardinals' 20-7 win.
Senior cornerback Jake Beesley says a lot of hard work and preparation has helped the Cardinals defense play so well as a unit. North Central has allowed just 146 points this year, a staggering total considering the team has scored 223 points this year in the second quarter alone -- and 712 all told.
"It's something that we put a lot of work into over the last 25 games," said Beesley, who started all 15 games for the 2019 champs and then came back for a fifth year after COVID wiped out the 2020 season. "It's a group that wants to put in time, and as a team wants to figure out what defenses or offenses want to do to us and how we can stop them. It's just a grind. We try to put as much time as we can and be the best we can."
Thorne loves his All-American corner as well as defensive end Dan Gilroy, who has 11.5 tackles for loss, but just as quickly praises his linebackers, the whole secondary and a number of the big guys on the defensive line.
"Our defense has been playing fantastic football all season," Thorne said. "There's some unsung heroes, a lot of those guys in the trenches have kept our linebackers clean. Storm Simmons has been a great linebacker and, you can go down the list. Our secondary has been fantastic and defensively, if you took the average GPA of our starters, I bet it's 3.5 or 3.6. That's just a really, really sharp group of guys. We have multiple-year starters across the board, they trust each other, and they know the system. Then they know our opponent. They take the time to really watch film."
Speaking of grinds, the Cardinals traveled to Ohio last week to face Mount Union, had final exams this week, then faced a local media barrage Tuesday before heading to Canton for more media demands on their time.
But regularly going deep in the playoffs makes it all worthwhile.
"Yeah, it's something we want to do every year going forward, just leave the program like that," Beesley said. "But it's something we need to focus on when we go down there because they've got all these events for us."
Limiting big plays from the Crusaders will be a key, and Beesley and his teammates are well aware of the talent on the other side of the field. Playing well last week after the opening drive was satisfying for the defense.
"That was a really good feeling. It was just everyone started to do their job and we just took the life away, possession by possession, and that's something we plan to do (again)," he said. "Hopefully we're not scored on the first drive. We're going to look to take away explosive plays against them, and I think that'll give us a great chance of beating them."
If so, the Cardinals will claim another national title and keep alive the longest current winning streak in college football.