North Central College advances to Division III semifinals
It takes a team of talented football players to put together the nation's No. 1 offense, and fortunately for North Central College, the Cardinals have an abundance of such players.
For much of this magical season, All-America quarterback Broc Rutter has shared the spotlight with running back Ethan Greenfield and wideout Andrew Kamienski while always quick to credit a tenacious offensive line led by left guard Sharmore Clarke. In Saturday's NCAA Division III quarterfinal against visiting Delaware Valley, each of the well-known stars played key roles in a 31-14 win in Naperville.
But as the 12-1 Cardinals head off to the semifinals against unbeaten Muhlenberg College, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, school coaching staff has yet another player to game plan against: freshman receiver DeAngelo Hardy. In last week's 59-52 shootout win over Mount Union, Hardy had 8 catches for 186 yards. On Saturday he was Rutter's top target, hauling in 9 passes for 132 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown pass that put North Central ahead 14-0 late in the opening quarter.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Hardy downplayed his two big back-to-back games, saying he and his teammates have bigger and better things on their minds as the Cardinals look to advance past the semifinals for the first time.
"We always work in practice. Over and over again we work hard," Hardy said. "It doesn't really mean anything until we make it to the championship."
For Rutter, Hardy's talent has been known since he arrived on campus for summer camps, but it's been growing on the practice field all year long.
"I can't say enough about him," the former Neuqua Valley standout quarterback said. "He just came out and made play after play after play after play as a true freshman ... it's not surprising. We saw him play when we had our 7-on-7s over the summer and we knew we had to get him involved in our offense really quickly.
"The growth he's shown throughout the year has been tremendous. He made some of the biggest plays of the game. Momentum stealers ... it was good to see. We've got so many good weapons it's tough on (opponents). If they want to try and take Andrew (Kamienski) out of the game we've got so many others who can make plays. It's no surprise to us. We see it every day in practice."
Greenfield, who has scored 10 touchdowns in three playoff games, opened the scoring with a 1-yard run. When Hardy's TD was followed by a 22-yard Magnus Meyer field goal, the Cardinals had a 17-0 lead at the half.
But the Aggies (11-2) stormed back with a pair of third-quarter TD passes from Anthony Fontana, the second an 85-yard score to tight end Dan Allen. But the visitors didn't stay close for long. Rutter hooked up with Kamienski on an 11-yard slant into the end zone for a 24-14 lead with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. It was the receiver's 26th touchdown grab of the season and equaled the Division III single-season record.
Delaware Valley's strong defense made it hard on Greenfield to find many big holes, yet North Central's hard runner picked up a big chunk of his 93 yards in the fourth quarter to work the clock and set the stage for his game-clinching 2-yard run with 6:02 left.
Cardinals coach Jeff Thorne was most happy for his seniors, including Rutter, and was also quick to single out linebacker Zach Butler, who saved a touchdown with a kick-return tackle in the first half and then made some key stops as the hosts blanked the Aggies over the final 24 minutes of play.
"I'm thrilled to continue to play," Thorne said after the program earned its second trip to the semifinals. "We're moving on after getting over a really, really quality fantastic Delaware Valley team. Their defense was everything it's cracked up to be. Their front seven was extremely stout."
Aggies coach Duke Greco was down as his team's great season closed, but that's not to say he didn't appreciate the opportunity.
"We had a good run. Right now it just hurts. It hurts because our guys put so much into it," Greco said. "It stings, but we're going to get through it. I don't think anyone here would not do it again. I'll fly out to Chicago tomorrow to do it again, just to be with these guys. It hurts, but it was a good experience."