North Central Cardinals vs. Cortland Red Dragons: National Championship Game Preview and Predictions

2023-12-14 16:13:18

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Setting the Scene:  The Cardinals face yet another new opponent as they prepare to compete for a third national championship and attempt to complete a second consecutive unbeaten campaign.

Series History: This is the first football meeting between the two institutions.

National Rankings: North Central was ranked No. 1 nationally at the end of the regular season by and the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). The Cardinals have been ranked first in both polls all season long.

Cortland was ranked No. 11 by and No. 13 by the AFCA.

Scouting the Red Dragons: Cortland defeated Randolph-Macon (Virginia), 49-14, in the national semifinals to advance to its first championship game. The Red Dragons have won 11 straight contests since their only loss of the season, a 38-35 setback against Susquehanna (Pennsylvania) on  Sept. 16.

Cortland scored the first 42 points of Saturday’s game as quarterback Zac Boyes completed three touchdown passes to wide receiver Cole Burgess. The Red Dragons have played three of their four games this postseason on the road.

Cortland has used a balanced attack to gain its 509 yards per game, which ranks sixth-best in Division III, and the Dragons have a naton-leading 368 first downs to their credit.

Boyes is completing nearly 72 percent of pass attempts and ranks second nationally in passing yards (3,671), fourth in efficiency (197.1) and sixth in touchdowns (39). Burgess  and JJ Leap each have more than 1,200 receiving yards and have combined for 27 touchdown catches.

Jaden Alfano-St. John is the Dragons’ leading rusher with 1,378 yards and 17 scores, while Ashton Capone has scored 13 times on the ground.

The Cortland defense has forced at least one turnover in every game this season     and ranks ninth nationally with 29 turnovers gained in 2023. Linebacker Jack Winey has a team-high 134 tackles, while defensive end Nick Lardaro leads the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and defensive back Luke Winslow has made five of the Dragons’ 17 interceptions.

This Week for the Cardinals: North Central advanced to its fourth straight title game by prevailing, 34-27, in a back-and-forth battle at No. 3-ranked Wartburg which was in doubt until the game’s final play.

Facing their first deficit of the season at 27-26 midway through the fourth quarter, the Cardinals stopped the hosts on their final three possessions and scored the game-winning touchdown on a four-yard run by Joe Sacco with 5:40 to play. Zack Orr intercepted a pass and the defense stood tall on fourth-and-goal at its own five-yard line before Orr stepped up again to end the game with a fourth-down tackle in the final minute of play.

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Sacco ran for 126 yards and two scores on a career-high 28 carries, while Joey Lombardi caught four passes for a career-best 161 yards and two TDs. Julian Bell and Angelo Cusumano paced the defense with eight tackles each while Orr and Jahron Williams each totaled seven.

The Cardinals have a 4-1 all-time record in national semifinals, four of which took place away from Naperville, and have played three top-five ranked teams in consecutive games in the same postseason for the first time.

North Central has scored touchdowns on 77 of 86 first-half possessions and its outscoring opponents, 560-77, in the first two periods of play.

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The College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) was founded in 1946 and currently services nine member institutions including Augustana College (Rock Island, Ill.), Carroll University (Waukesha, Wis.), Carthage College (Kenosha, Wis.), Elmhurst University (Elmhurst, Ill.), Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, Ill.), Millikin University (Decatur, Ill.), North Central College (Naperville, Ill.), North Park University (Chicago, Ill.) and Wheaton College (Wheaton, Ill.).

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