North Central's quest for second D3 title ends with miserable second half
Even with a year in between, it's never easy to repeat.
North Central College made a good run at a second-straight Division III national title, but couldn't keep up with Mary Hardin-Baylor and lost 57-24 on Friday night in Canton, Ohio. The Cardinals brought the trophy back to Naperville in 2019 and there was no Division III season last year due to the pandemic.
Mary Hardin-Baylor (15-0), located in Belton, Tex., won the D3 title game for the third time in the last six years. North Central (13-1) saw a 24-game win streak come to an end.
North Central got off to a fast start when Deangelo Hardy (Lakes High School) returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. The Cardinals made some opportune plays to stay in the game, but Mary Hardin-Baylor dominated the second half while rolling up 596 yards of offense.
"Just feel like we ran into a little bit of a buzz saw," North Central coach Jeff Thorne said after the game. "The quarterback was just dynamite. We saw it on film during the week. His ability to throw the ball downfield with accuracy and touch was incredibly impressive. They've got a whole slew of receivers that can run and can catch. They were tough to defend.
"We put ourselves in some tough spots with turnovers and things of that nature. Just wasn't our night, but it wasn't because we screwed up. They forced those turnovers."
With a 16-7 lead, Mary Hardin-Baylor threatened to break the game open early in the second quarter. The Crusaders forced a turnover on a strip sack and fumble recovery by Mikkah Hackett.
A few plays later, receiver Brenton Martin caught a long pass, but North Central's Sam Taviani (Downers Grove North) stripped the ball just before Martin hit the ground and teammate De'Angelo Roberson (Prospect) recovered the fumble.
North Central responded with a 90-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 1-yard push by Ethan Greenfield (Lakes). The Cardinals' run game was bottled up in the first quarter, but Greenfield gained 48 yards on 9 carries during the long touchdown drive. He finished with 124 yards on 25 attempts.
The Cardinals forced another turnover three plays after the ensuing kickoff, with Jake Beesley knocking the ball loose from QB Kyle King on a cornerback blitz and Cameron Martin (Naperville North) recovering the fumble.
This led to a 22-yard field goal by Tanner Rains (Plainfield Central) to put North Central ahead, before Mary Hardin-Baylor answer with a short field goal to take a 19-17 lead into halftime.
The Crusaders opened the second half with a 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. Needing an answer, North Central put together a march, but it ended with an interception near the end zone by MHB's Jefferson Fritz. A 91-yard scoring drive sent the advantage to 33-17 and another pick led to a Crusaders field goal early in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals won the title in '19 behind the strong play of quarterback Broc Rutter. His replacement, freshman Luke Lehnen, had a night to forget. After 3 second-half interceptions, Lehnen did hit Blake Williams (Metea Valley) for a 30-yard TD pass.
Senior WR Andrew Kamienski (South Elgin) appeared to injure his shoulder during the third quarter, but returned to the field and finished with 8 catches for 115 yards.
Mary Hardin-Baylor's playmakers were tough to stop. While King threw for 445 yards and 3 touchdowns, Miller had 11 catches for 172 yards while Martin hauled in 8 receptions for 182 yards.
"That team played better football than we did tonight, that team coached better than we did tonight," Thorne said. "But I tell you, I'm proud of our team, how hard they played. It's no different than anytime they ever take the field, they played with their hearts.
"I just wish I could have done more to be better prepared to play against that team. They deserved to win tonight. They're a worthy national champion and I've got nothing but respect for that football team and their coaching staff."
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