by Evan Bruner
The NCC football team is in Annapolis, Maryland, today to take on a familiar foe in the Mount Union Raiders. This meeting will mark the third consecutive postseason where the two schools have faced off, with North Central coming out on top in both. Most recently, winning by a score of 26-13 in last year’s semifinal. Both teams enter championship week with perfect 14-0 records. North Central is representing the CCIW, winning their second straight conference title, while Mount Union took home their sixth straight OAC crown.
Few teams in division three history have put together a run as dominant as the Cardinals have this season. First-year head coach Brad Spencer has shown no trouble adjusting to his new role. North Central has won every game by double digits and has outscored its opponents 175-28 in the playoffs. Most notably, the Cardinals avenged last season’s Stagg Bowl loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor, taking down the defending champs 49-14. North Central’s offense is once again led by quarterback Luke Lehnen. Lehnen has completed 69.5% of his passes for 2,568 yards, 35 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Additionally, he has been a key contributor on the ground rushing for 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns. Lehnen’s go-to guy has been D’Angelo Hardy, who leads the team in catches (67), yards (1,091) and touchdowns (18).
Senior running back, first-team All-American and Gagliardi finalist Ethan Greenfield has been another crucial part of the offense. Greenfield has run for 1,878 yards and 25 touchdowns on 7.6 yards per carry this season. The rushing tandem of Lehnen and Greenfield has made for one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The Cardinals as a team have averaged a whopping 364.1 yards per game. Much of this is also due to the stellar play from North Central’s offensive line. Three starters were named to all-region teams by D3football.com, with tackle Jeske Maples grabbing a first-team selection and guard Sam Pryor, as well as center Jarod Thornton being named to the second team.
On defense, the Cardinals are led by second-team All-American Dan Lester. The defensive tackle has put up 8.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. Along with Lester, D3football.com named defensive back Antwain Walker first-team All-Region by D3football.com. Linebacker BJ Adamchick also received recognition, being named to the all-region second team. The Cardinals’ defense has only surrendered 5.64 points and 203.4 yards per game.
For Mount Union, winning the OAC has become a mere expectation, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Despite outscoring their opponents 632-123 this season, the Raiders have had some close calls to close out the regular season. A 34-28 win over John Caroll and a narrow 23-21 victory over Baldwin Wallace highlighted some upset scares. Still, the Raiders received one of the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament and won their first three playoff games by multiple scores.
The Raiders are led by a Gagliardi finalist of their own. Quarterback Braxton Pluck has led the air raid attack with 4,317 yards, 48 passing touchdowns and six interceptions. Pluck’s top receiver is first-team all-region receiver Wayne Ruby, who has caught 96 passes for 1,676 yards and a whopping 29 touchdowns. But even with this high volume passing, the Raiders have still produced on the ground, averaging 181.6 rushing yards per game.
The Raiders’ defense is led by linebacker Rossy Moore. Moore leads the team in both sacks and tackles for loss with 10.5 and 17.5, respectively. Moore was joined on the all-region first team by defensive lineman Duke Hill and defensive back Derrick Bradley. A major storyline to watch will be how the Raiders’ stingy run defense matches up against the Cardinals’ potent rushing attack. Mount Union comes into this contest only surrendering 1.6 yards per carry and 44.6 rushing yards per game.
The battle of division three heavyweights will kick off tonight at 6:00 with WONC’s pregame coverage beginning at 5:25.