NAPERVILLE — When the second half began Saturday night, Illinois Wesleyan's football team could sense its first victory at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium since 2000 was there for the taking.
But after the Titans had a touchdown wiped out by a penalty — which would have given IWU the lead early in the third quarter — North Central regained control.
The fifth-ranked Cardinals used two touchdown passes from Broc Rutter and Liam Crotty's four field goals to turn back No. 16 IWU, 26-13, in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin opener.
“I'm proud of our players. I think we're a darn good football team. They made more plays than we did,” said IWU coach Norm Eash. “To win championship games you've got to make plays. We made them in the first half and made some to come out in the second half and had momentum, but could never recapture it after that.”
IWU (2-1) gained only 66 yards in the second half and went almost the last 27 minutes of the game without a first down.
North Central (2-0) earned its eighth straight win and 14th in the last 15 years against IWU (2-1).
After being tied 13-all at halftime, the Titans got the kickoff and drove down the field before Brandon Bauer threw an apparent 14-yard TD to Jack Healy.
However, Healy was called for pass interference to negate the score. Two plays later, Bauer was intercepted by North Central's Tommy Sora, who returned it to midfield.
“I thought we had an outstanding drive and got the pass interference call,” said Eash. “I think they played our receivers tight all night, and they (the referees) did not give us any benefit of the doubt as far as them beating up our receivers. Then our receiver become aggressive and we get called for pass interference.”
North Central quickly moved down the field in five plays. Rutter threw an 18-yard TD pass to Andrew Kamienski to give the Cardinals a 20-13 lead.
Crotty's third field goal, a 33-yarder with 9:58 left, gave the Cardinals a 23-13 lead. Another Crotty field goal from 39 yards extended the advantage to 26-13 with 5:22 left.
Bauer finished 12 of 27 for 178 yards and threw two interceptions. Morgan Alexander was the Titans' leading rusher with 64 yards on 19 carries.
Rutter, a redshirt sophomore who was last year's CCIW Offensive Player of the Year, completed 24 of 37 attempts for 226 yards. The Cardinals also rushed for 120 yards, led by Austin Breunig's 69 yards on 17 carries.
“We were more bend, but don't break,” said Eash of IWU's defense. “It was a matter of field position, too. You can do a lot of things (defensively) when you have good field position, and I don't think we had very good field position in the second half.”
IWU fell behind 10-0 at the start, but it could have been much worse.
After Rutter threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kamienski to give the Cardinals a 7-0 lead, IWU's Liam Keffer fumbled the kickoff.
North Central recovered at the Titans 7, but the IWU defense held. The Cardinals settled for Crotty's 22-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 6:10 left in the first quarter.
IWU put together a 13-play, 70-yard drive in which another touchdown pass from Bauer to Healy was wiped out by a pass interference penalty. But the Titans converted on fourth-and-23 when Andrew Apel fought for a 24-yard gain.
Bauer went up the middle for a 6-yard TD run on the next play. However, North Central blocked Anthony Sciarini's extra-point attempt and the Titans trailed, 10-6, with 33 seconds left in the first quarter.
North Central drove to IWU's 9 before the Titan defense held again. Crotty's 26-yard field goal gave the hosts a 13-6 lead early in the second quarter.
IWU came right back on an 11-play, 73-yard drive, highlighted by a 46-yard screen pass from Bauer to Matese Scott down to North Central's 2. On third down from the 4, Bauer found Apel in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. Sciarini converted for a 13-all with 7:46 left.