By Sam Corbett & Lucas Burris
It feels like this matchup was destined to happen. The 2021 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the national championship for NCAA Division III college football, will be between the two top-ranked teams in the nation. North Central College will look to defend its national champion status against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. This year’s championship will take place at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio on Friday, December 17 with kickoff scheduled for 6:00 PM (CST).
WONC Sports, the official radio voice of NCC Athletics, will be on the call for the game. The WONC Sports Football Broadcast team will join the Cardinals on their trip to the Stagg Bowl to provide fans with the official Cardinal Football home radio broadcast.
Tale of the tape
North Central and Mary Hardin-Baylor have been ranked at the top of both D3 Football polls all season long. Ever since NCC knocked off Wheaton in their second game of the year, the Cardinals have found themselves ranked #1 overall in both the D3Football.com and AFCA Coaches Poll. Mary Hardin-Baylor was the top team in the polls for the first two weeks before it was NCC’s for the rest of the regular season. Regardless, UMHB has received seven first-place votes in each of the weekly polls.
The Stagg Bowl will also see two of the top offenses in Division III. North Central comes in with the #1 scoring offense in the country at 54.8 points per game. Ethan Greenfield ’22, the nation’s second-leading rusher, leads the NCC offense alongside senior wide receiver and Gagliardi Award finalist Andrew Kamienski ’22. Mardy Hardin-Baylor comes in with the nation’s #3 scoring offense led by wide receiver Brandon Jordan, who ranks in or near the top ten in the country every receiving stat.
The defenses don’t lack too far behind either. NCC comes into the game with the nation’s #8 ranked scoring defense only giving up 11.2 points per game. The UMHB defense is just that much better coming in with the nation’s #3 ranked scoring defense at 9.00 points per game. UMHB has only allowed 75 yards per game on the ground and only 158 yards per game through the air. The Cardinals’ defense is allowing 60 rush yards per game and 175 yards through the air.
Both teams went undefeated in the regular season and won their respective conferences. The CCIW and the ASC were both top-heavy, with both second-place teams (Wheaton and Hardin-Simmons) having only one loss. NCC didn’t clinch a conference title until the last regular-season game, an 84-6 victory against North Park University. Entering the playoffs on opposite sides of the bracket, NCC and UMHB were the top overall seed in their regional rankings as well.
In the first round, NCC learned during the week that their opponent, Carnegie Mellon, had contracted too many positive COVID-19 cases on their roster. While NCC, the top overall seed in the tournament, received an unofficial bye, UMHB faced off against Trinity-Texas. In a battle of undefeated teams, UMHB won 13-3. The only touchdown scored was an Aphonso Thomas 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
In the second round, Wisconsin-Lacrosse traveled to Naperville. NCC came away with a 34-20 victory despite allowing the most amount of passing yards (323) all season. Meanwhile, UMHB hosted Birmingham-Southern College and blew out the Panthers, 42-7. The Crusaders limited BSC to only two successful third-down conversions from 12 attempts.
“La Crosse is one of the top teams in the country,” said head coach Jeff Thorne. “They were everything we thought they’d be and more. It was quite the baptism for [Lehnen] for his first playoff game.”
Lehnen completed 13 of 23 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown in the win.
“It was really nice to open the playoffs, especially against as good a team as La Crosse was,” said Lehnen. “That was like a semifinal-caliber kind of game. To get that win against that team boosted my confidence and will help me out for the rest of the playoffs.”
The national quarterfinals saw NCC host the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Engineers, while UMHB hosted the Linfield Wildcats. The Engineers finished the game with a negative rushing yard total, while NCC had 516 total yards of offense, 197 yards through the air and 319 on the ground. The Cardinals cruised to a 55-6 win. Between the Crusaders and Wildcats, a game with over 1000 yards of offense was highlighted by a 21-point second quarter by UMHB.
In the semifinals, NCC relied on the legs of running back Ethan Greenfield during a windy and rainy game in Alliance, Ohio. A 26-13 Cardinal victory was led by Greenfield who totaled 190 yards. NCC’s scores came from a Lehnen scramble and completions to tight end Matt Robinson ’23 and wide receiver DeAngelo Hardy ’23. A hard-fought battle came down to the time of possession battle, as NCC held the ball nearly twice as long as UMU did.
In Whitewater, a 17-0 lead was the difference-maker for the Crusaders, who came away with a 24-7 victory. Brandon Jordan led the way with 11 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. The 6 foot 6-inch receiver bullied Warhawk defenders all afternoon.
“We call him ‘Bail-out Brandon”, UMHB quarterback Kyle King joked after the game. “When you get in trouble, you put it up and try to put it on his back shoulder, where he can use his body. Ninety percent of the time, he’s going to come down with it. It’s a comfortable feeling knowing you have him out there.”
Even after spending all week trying to figure out a way to defend the receiver, Whitewater came up with nothing.
“We felt good about defending the run and getting pressure on King, but [UMHB did a good job with] quick passes and getting the ball up high to Jordan,” said Whitewater’s head coach Kevin Bullis.
All of the awards
NCC totaled 17 All-CCIW picks along with 10 All-Region players, highlighted by Kamienski, Greenfield, guard Sharmore Clarke ’22, defensive end Dan Gilroy ’23, linebacker Ben Wong ’22, and Beesley. UMHB tallied up 25 All-ASC selections, along with 13 All-Region picks. Their highest accolade this season has been a fellow Gagliardi Award finalist, defensive back Jefferson Fritz. The winner of this year’s Gagliardi award will be announced during the Stagg Bowl pregame show on Friday.
How to take in the game
North Central College has organized travel for both current students and alumni. Students can find all the information sent to their emails and alumni can find the information through the office of alumni engagement. ESPNU will broadcast the Stagg Bowl on television.
However, the call you are really looking forward to is the one right here on FM 89! The Stagg Bowl will be called by the WONC Sports crew of Lucas Burris and Sam Corbett who were on the call for the national semifinal game and every other NCC Football game this season.
The game is scheduled for kickoff at 6:00 PM (CST) with the official Cardinal Football pregame show beginning on FM 89 at 5:40 PM. You can find the broadcast on your radio dial at FM 89.1 or online right here at WONC.org or on iHeart Radio