Story and photo courtesy of North Central Athletics
DECATUR, Ill. - Darting ahead early and putting the contest away with 28 unanswered points midway through the afternoon, the North Central College football team won for the fourth straight time and improved to 2-0 in College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) play on Saturday with a 42-22 victory over Millikin University at Frank M. Lindsay Field.
The 11th-ranked Cardinals (4-1) won for the 18th straight time against CCIW opposition and posted their eighth consecutive victory over the Big Blue. North Central has now won its last four games on Millikin's home field.
The Cardinals needed just 17 seconds to take the lead, as Patrick Mitchell returned the opening kickoff to the Millikin four-yard line, completing the fourth-longest kick return in North Central history. Jordan Tassio ran in for the score on the first play from scrimmage and the visitors owned a very early 7-0 advantage.
Playing in front of a large Homecoming crowd, Millikin (3-2, 0-2 CCIW) responded with a 13-play, 66-yard drive to tie the score. Quarterback Matt Holmes, who completed 5 of 7 passes on the possession, throwing a seven-yard touchdown pass to Erik Tobey with 8:49 remaining in the opening period.
The teams traded punts before the Cardinals opened their next scoring drive. A 20-yard pass from Spencer Stanek to Peter Sorenson got North Central into striking distance at the Millikin 24-yard line, and a 13-yard run by Nick Kukuc followed before Tassio covered 11 yards for his second score and a 14-7 advantage with 54 seconds to go in the first quarter.
North Central had an opportunity to tack on an additional score on their next drive, bringing kicker Nick Dace on for a 47-yard field goal. Dace's kick, however, sailed wide, giving the hosts possession at their own 30-yard line. Millikin running back Nick Dunning gained 48 yards on four carries to kickstart the Big Blue's next drive, and Austin Brettschneider ultimately came on to kick a 36-yard field goal to narrow the gap to 14-10 with 10:38 before halftime.
The Cardinals countered with a nine-play, 65-yard drive which put them in front by a 21-10 count after Stanek found Peter Sorenson on a fade route for a 12-yard TD pass with 4:10 left in the second quarter. After forcing another Millikin punt, North Central was able to manage the clock and tack on another touchdown before the buzzer sounded. A 16-yard pass from Stanek to Tassio and a 16-yard run by Kukuc, along with a Millikin personal foul penalty, set the Cardinals up on the Millikin 40. Stanek then completed a 16-yard pass to Chad O'Kane and a nine-yard strike to Jeff Stolzenburg before Nick Kukuc ran to the right side and dove for the corner of the end zone for a 15-yard TD run with 28 seconds on the clock. North Central headed into halftime with a 28-10 advantage.
After forcing a punt on the first possession of the second half, the Cardinals opened their next scoring drive on their own 10-yard line. Stanek fired deep to Halaiano Fuentes for a 36-yard pass, and another Millikin personal foul left the visitors just 13 yards from the goal line. On fourth down-and-one at the four-yard line, Tassio ran for two yards to move the sticks, then covered the final two yards on the next play for his third touchdown and a 35-10 lead.
Millikin threatened to score on its next drive, traveling 57 yards in 11 plays and advancing all the way to the Cardinals' five-yard line. Dorian Hryniewicki tackled Dunning for a three-yard loss on third down, and Alex Tripp sacked Holmes on fourth down to force a turnover on downs at the 13. North Central ran the ball seven times in a 10-play, 87-yard drive and scored when Kukuc once again dove for the front corner of the end zone, this time on the left side, from 13 yards away.
The Cardinals' starters left the game in the fourth period and Millikin managed a pair of touchdowns. Holmes threw a 24-yard TD pass to Erik Tobey with 12:11 to play and Dunning ran for a two-yard score as time expired.
North Central outgained the Big Blue in total offense, 429 yards to 360, and converted 30 first downs. Kukuc gained a season-high 117 rushing yards on 14 carries, while Tassio ran for 46 yards on nine carries. Stanek completed 19 of 28 passes for 237 yards, throwing five times to Manny Juarez for 41 yards. Joey Michals paced the Cardinals' defense with eight tackles, while Shane Dierking added six and Hryniewicki finished with five. Connor Douglas intercepted a pass and Josh Mitchell broke up three others.
Dunning ran 17 times for 98 yards for Millikin, while Holmes completed 19 of 31 passes for 245 yards, despite being sacked five times, and Tobey made eight catches for 107 yards. Jacob Alvis, Marquette Moore and Christian Silva paced the Big Blue with 11 tackles each.
The Cardinals are on the road again next week, traveling to Chicago to face North Park University. North Central will go for its 17th straight victory over the Vikings on Saturday, with kickoff at the Holmgren Athletic Complex scheduled for 1 p.m.