For the first time in five years, Wheaton College is home to the Little Brass Bell, the highly-sought prize of the rivalry between the Wheaton and North Central football programs. The Thunder had not defeated the Cardinals since a 28-24 win in Naperville in 2007, and each year since North Central had won the rivalry by an average margin of 23 points.
But this season the Thunder reversed the trend of Cardinal victories when they defeated North Central on the road 35-21.
Senior quarterback Jordan Roberts threw for 380 yards and two touchdowns to lead the offensive attack, and senior linebacker Pat Dansdill had a crucial fourth-quarter 72-yard fumble return for a touchdown to put the victory on ice.
“This was a big win for Wheaton College football,” Head Coach Mike Swider said following the game. “I know I’ve said that several times this year, but if there could be a big one, this was a big one.”
The game took a Wheaton turn right away as junior safety Tony Vargyas was able to hop on a fumble by North Central’s Nick Kukuc on the first play from scrimmage. Though Wheaton was not able to score off the turnover, they were the first team to hit the scoreboard.
After forcing a North Central punt, Roberts took the offense from their own 13-yard line deep into Cardinal territory, capping off a 17-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to junior Stephen Seitz for the 7-0 lead.
North Central picked off a Roberts pass in the second quarter and returned it 60 yards to set up the game-tying touchdown run by Kukuc to make it 7-7. Two possessions later, Wheaton used the big play to take the lead back as Roberts hit senior receiver Morgan Cook with a 61-yard touchdown pitch-and-catch to retake the lead 14-7. The lead stood for the rest of the half, and Wheaton went into the locker room up by a touchdown.
The Thunder used the opening possession of the second half to reset the momentum once again in their favor. Roberts completed four passes to get the ball inside the Cardinal 10, then took off on a 6-yard touchdown run to give Wheaton a 21-7 advantage early in the third quarter. The scoring drive took 10 plays and 70 yards, the second scoring drive of 10 plays or more in the contest.
After a North Central fumble was recovered by junior linebacker Brett Anderson, the Thunder offense went on an 18-play drive that featured conversions of third-and-12 and fourth-and-one, setting up another touchdown run by Roberts, this time from five yards out to extend the lead to 28-7.
North Central quickly struck back to begin the fourth quarter with a 47-yard touchdown pass to make it a two-score game at 28-14 with 13:52 left. Things continued getting dicey for the Thunder on the following drive after a 18-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Sam Cote was wide left, leaving the door open for the Cardinals.
Trailing by two touchdowns with 10 minutes left, North Central mounted their comeback bid, taking a drive into Thunder territory and inside the 30. Then came the play of the game, as Cardinal quarterback Spencer Stanek tried to escape the pocket and run on second-and-10. But sophomore defensive end Jared Todd wrapped him up and forced the ball out of his hands, where Dansdill scooped it up and took off on a 72-yard sprint to the end zone, making it 35-14 Thunder with five minutes left.
North Central scored a late touchdown to account for the final score of 35-21. It was not an insignificant score, either, as it gave the Cardinals the advantage over the Thunder in the point differential category between the three teams tied at the top of the conference standings.
Following the final horn, the emotion of winning back the Bell from North Central was manifested on the Thunder sideline as the road team hoisted the prize and gathered for celebration.
“I thought our kids played exceedingly well today,” Swider said. “We played physical, we played fast, we played loose, we played with extreme confidence, and I thought that was really critical to our success.”
The win puts the Thunder at 7-2 overall and 5-1 in CCIW play, putting them in a three-way tie for first place in the conference along with Elmhurst and North Central, both of whom are also 5-1. One game remains for each team, with Wheaton facing North Park (1-8; 0-6 CCIW) on Saturday, Nov. 10.
North Central takes on Augustana in Rock Island and Elmhurst plays Illinois Wesleyan on Saturday as well. Should the Thunder defeat North Park, they will secure a part of the CCIW regular season championship.
The winner of the automatic qualifying spot for the NCAA playoffs, however, depends on the point differential between the three tied teams based on the games in which they played each other. As of today, that still leaves North Central at the top with a point differential of +20 (W 44-10 over Elmhurst; L 21-35 to Wheaton), with the Thunder in second at +9 (L 30-35 to Elmhurst; W 35-21 over North Central) and Elmhurst in third at -25 (L 10-44 to North Central; W 35-30 over Wheaton).
Then again, the Thunder have had to win three tough contests in a row to hold this position. After falling to Elmhurst back on Oct. 13, Wheaton has defeated Illinois Wesleyan, Millikin and North Central and has a chance to win four games in a row going into the NCAA selection show on Monday, Nov. 12. Though few two-loss teams are selected without an outright conference championship, the Thunder’s recent win streak may give them a gleam of hope. In order to secure a spot without doubt, Wheaton must defeat North Park and then get a win from Illinois Wesleyan over Elmhurst.
Three weeks ago, that would have been an easier task. But IWU starting quarterback Rob Gallik suffered an ACL tear in the loss against Wheaton, and the Titans have not won a game since.
Wheaton is ranked No. 14 in the nation, according to this week’s d3football.com poll.
Kickoff for Wheaton vs. North Park is set for 1 p.m. at McCully Stadium and can be heard and seen on WETN 88.1 FM, WETN-TV or streaming live at wetn.org.
Photo Courtesy: Mike Hudson
Printed in the November 9, 2012, issue of The Wheaton Record. Send comments to email@example.com.