Scouting report: North Central, Ill. Cardinals
The Linfield Wildcats are at home again in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, but they shouldn’t take much comfort by that after what North Central, Ill. did vs. Cal Lutheran last week.
The No. 14-ranked Cardinals (9-2) ruined Cal Lu’s first home playoff game in program history with a 41-21 win, proving that the road team isn’t at a disadvantage as much as people think. There were five road teams that won in the first round.
Saturday after Linfield beat Pacific Lutheran 27-24 in the first round, Linfield coach Joseph Smith said he was looking forward to playing someone different. The Wildcats (10-0) had already played the Lutes and Cal Lu this season, and have been matched up in the first round with familiar opponents in the last couple of years. There is also a stressful component to being matched up with a completely unfamiliar opponent, as Smith found out after watching film of the Cardinals. He had nothing but the best things to say about North Central.
“This is a team that can win the whole thing,” Smith said. “This is a legit top seven or eight team. They’re everything you think they are. They are very good.”
Even more so than Linfield, North Central is a balanced team that is effective in passing and rushing. They have two running backs that have scored 14 or more touchdowns this season (Linfield’s top seven rushers combined have rushed for 15 touchdowns, and the Wildcats have scored 17 total rushing touchdowns this season). The Cardinals’ top running back is Nick Kukuc, who has rushed for 1,259 yards this season. Last week vs. Cal Lu, he rushed for 250 yards.
“North Central is very formidable on offense and we’re going to have our hands full,” Smith said. “I don’t expect to have the physical mismatch like there was on the line of scrimmage vs. Pacific Lutheran.
“This is the best offense we’ve lined up against by far all year. They’re very very good.”
Linfield’s defense has been outstanding this season vs. the rush, allowing less than 70 yards a game on the ground. Smith said taking away North Central’s run game will be a big part of whether or not the Wildcats are successful Saturday.
“That’s what teams haven’t been able to do, and that’s take away their run game,” Smith said. “Their balance makes them very difficult. … They’re the worst combination of what you want to face. They’re a powerful team that’s fast. That’s a dangerous combination.”
North Central quarterback Spencer Stanek was 12-of-19 for 225 yards Saturday vs. Cal Lu, and he threw for three touchdowns. The Cardinals’ leading receiver was Jeff Stolzenburg, who caught four passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
For the most part, North Central has a roster full of players from Illinois, with six exceptions. There are a couple players from Colorado, one from Arizona, one from Florida, another from California, and one, strangely enough, from Oregon: Stolzenburg. His hometown is listed as Beaverton, though he graduated high school from St. Charles North in Illinois. He has the University of Oregon listed as a former college.
North Central’s defense is also formidable. The Cardinals are ranked No. 14 in the country in total defense, allowing less than 270 yards per game. Linfield is also top 20, so the Wildcats could again be in for a contest that comes down to who can take advantage of the other’s mistakes.
“Their defense is outstanding,” Smith said. “I haven’t seen any weaknesses on that team. … They’re really sound.”