Jeff Thorne on win over RPI and surprise road trip to Alliance, Ohio to face the Mount Union Purple Raiders in the semifinals.
As the number-one ranked team in the country and undefeated defending national champions, the North Central football team expected that they would host all the way through the semifinals if they kept winning. Thus, it came as a surprise when the NCAA announced this Saturday’s game against Mount Union would take place not in Naperville, but in Ohio.
“It is what it is,” said Cardinals head coach Jeff Thorne. “Whether it’s here or it’ there, we’re playing a semifinal game. The message to the team is ‘what an opportunity,’ we get to go on the road and really test our metal again and show what we’re made of.”
They earned their trip to the final four of Division III football with a dominant 55-6 win over R.P.I., in which the fundamental excellence of the Cardinals was on display.
“Our offensive line again established itself, our defense played very very well, and special teams was very solid blocking a couple kicks,” Thorne said. “And any time all of that you’ve got a good chance of winning.”
There was a significant increase in penalties called on both teams compared to the win over UW La Crosse, which Thorne mostly chalked up to an additional referee positioned behind the line of scrimmage and thus with a better view of potential holding penalties and other backfield infractions.
“Just some adversity our team had to work its way through, and I thought our team handled it extremely well,” Thorne said.
The cherry-o-top of the performance was a pick-six by DeAngelo Roberson, a senior who leads the team with four interceptions despite not being a starter.
“That’s the secret to any great team are the unsung heroes,” said Thorne of selfless players like Roberson. “They’re really the lifeblood of a team.”
Speaking of high-achieving seniors, wide receiver Andrew Kamienski is one of five finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, which honors Division III’s outstanding football player.
“There’s nobody more deserving,” Thorne said of Kamienski. “He’s just an incredible player, one of the all-time great players here, one of my favorite players ever to coach.”
This Saturday will be the Cardinals third trip to Alliance, their most recent a 59-52 victory in the 2019 playoffs that will forever be a classic game in North Central history.
“We’ve been there before, it’s not as if we’re going some place we haven’t played well,” Thorne said of his team’s previous experiences at Mount Union. “They’re the measuring stick in Division III, it’s really who we aspire to be someday.”
Following last week’s win, Thorne asked the entire city of Naperville to come out to the game. Despite the change of venue, he still hopes to have their full support.
“Anybody who wants to make the trip, hop on I-80 and head east and you’ll run right into it.”