4th Quarter Outburst Lifts North Central past Millikin


DECATUR, Ill. (via North Central Athletics) - Inclement weather conditions and a motivated opponent forced a change of plans for the North Central College football team on Saturday, but the Cardinals changed tack in just enough time secure a victory as the Cardinals scored 35 unanswered fourth-quarter points in a 49-21 College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) victory at Millikin University.

On a rain-soaked and windswept field, the 21st-ranked Cardinals struggled to pin down a Millikin team playing in its 100th Homecoming contest. In the end, a direct approach was best, as North Central pounded away with its running game with Dylan Warden returning to quarterback after starting the game at wide receiver. He directed five scoring drives in the final 13:42 of the contest, calling 17 straight running plays, and the visitors took advantage of two fumble recoveries and a failed fourth-down conversion in the final period.

The Cardinals (2-2, 1-0 CCIW) got off to a fast start despite throwing an interception on the game's first play from scrimmage. North Central safety Richard Zirngibl returned the favor on the next play, returning the ball 43 yards to the Millikin 12-yard line. Austin Breunig scored the game's first touchdown on a seven-yard scamper two plays later. Cardinal quarterback Justin Hunniford froze the defense with a pump fake later in the first period and lofted a 48-yard TD pass to Alex Ulmer, doubling the lead to 14-0 with 6:27 on the first-quarter clock.

North Central was on the move in the second quarter when the Big Blue's Demetreeus Loper stepped in front of a screen pass and returned the interception 38 yards to the end zone, cutting the Cardinals' lead in half with 13:13 left in the first half. The visitors threatened to score at the end of the first half before an intentional-grounding penalty caused the final few seconds to be run off the clock.

The Big Blue (1-3, 0-1 CCIW) knotted the score at 14-14 early in the third period as quarterback Nicco Stepina called his own number and raced down the left sideline 66 yards for Millikin's first offensive touchdown. Toward the end of the period, Stepina struck again to strengthen the hosts' upset bid by completing a 38-yard pass to Rion Tutt and running for 17 yards before finding Tutt again in the right corner of the end zone for a 25-yard scoring pass with just 30 seconds left in the third quarter.

Warden relieved Hunniford on the next series and immediately went to work, running for 20 yards and handing off to Matt Randolph for 14 more before the period ended. Warden kept the ball on the first three plays of the final quarter, the last of which was a nine-yard scoring run that tied the contest at 21-21. After a short Millikin punt, Warden capped a four-play, 59-yard drive with a 24-yard TD scamper to put North Central back in front, 28-21.

The Cardinals got a boost from their special-teams unit on the ensuing kickoff, as Diondrey Hood recovered a fumble at the Millikin 18-yard line. Randolph was in the end zone four plays later after a six-yard run. Stepina fumbled while getting sacked by Justin Stuursma on the next drive, and Jimmy Pelnarsh recovered to give North Central the ball at the Millikin 19. This time it took just two plays to hit the goal line, as Warden scored from 10 yards out. After the Big Blue turned the ball over on downs, North Central got its final score on a one-yard run by Andrew Sledd with just under a minute to play.

The Cardinals wound up owning a 481-279 advantage in total yards, including a 294-122 edge in rushing yards. Warden finished with 103 yards on 11 carries, while Breunig gained 91 yards on 15 attempts and Randolph ran 11 times for 88 yards. Hunniford completed 16 of 31 passes for 187 yards, hitting Ulmer six times for 95 yards. Zirngibl led the North Central defense with seven tackles, while Stuursma posted six tackles and three tackles for loss.

Stepina completed 16 of 28 passes for 150 yards and ran for 75 yards on 17 carries before leaving the game late in the fourth quarter due to injury. He passed six times to Tutt for 84 yards. Chase Robbins was Millikin's top tackler with 12 total stops.

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