THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – New venue. New opponent. Same result.
Hosting an NCAA Division III playoff game for the first time in program history, the Cal Lutheran football team didn't give the home fans much to cheer about.
The eighth-ranked Kingsmen fell behind big early and never recovered, losing to No. 14 North Central (Ill.) 41-21 in the first round Saturday afternoon in front of a William Rolland Stadium crowd of 2,214.
It marks the fourth straight first-round playoff exit for CLU (8-2). The first three came on the road against Linfield (Ore.).
"We didn't pick a very good Saturday to have our worst execution game of the season," CLU head coach Ben McEnroe said. "All the credit goes to North Central. Their kids played hard and they were physical. But I feel like we left a lot of opportunities out there in the first half with turnovers, and we didn't get stops and didn't make tackles when we needed to.
"That is what playoff football is all about, either you make the plays or you go home. They made the plays and they are advancing."
It didn't take very long for CLU's postseason outlook to turn as dreary as the rainy weather Saturday.
North Central (9-2) scored its first touchdown after only 42 seconds had elapsed on a 79-yard run by Nick Kukuc and never looked back.
The Cardinals led 24-0 after one quarter, 27-7 at halftime and 41-7 in the fourth quarter. CLU tacked on two late touchdowns to make the score more respectable, but the damage was already done.
CLU's defense allowed North Central to accumulate 528 yards of total offense — 292 on the ground and 236 through the air.
Kukuc was the latest running back to compile career numbers against CLU. The senior finished with a career-high 250 yards on 20 carries for a whopping 12.5 yards-per-carry average.
"The things we saw in the first half were a lot of the same problems that were compounded over the last two weeks against Chapman and La Verne," McEnroe said. "It boils down to making plays when you have the opportunity to make plays and making tackles when you have a chance to make a tackle and have a guy wrapped up."
Any hope of a CLU comeback was doused by turnovers. Trailing 14-0 in the first quarter, the Kingsmen fumbled twice and North Central converted the miscues into 10 points.
But perhaps the most symbolic turnover for CLU came in the second quarter after having first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Smothered on the first three attempts, CLU's drive ended when running back Romello Goodman fumbled at the 1 and North Central recovered.
The Cardinals drove 66 yards for a 49-yard field goal by Nick Dace to end the half. The teams combined for eight total fumbles in the wet conditions, with each team losing three.
"We put ourselves in the position to win the football game and turned around on offense and shot ourselves in the foot," McEnroe said. "The football stats might say one thing, but I think the game was closer than the score indicated."
The fourth quarter at least allowed two of CLU's senior stalwarts to end their careers with a few more highlights.
Eric Rogers caught two touchdown passes and defensive tackle Rian Younker scooped up a fumble and ran 47 yards to set up Rogers' second touchdown.
Rogers caught nine passes for 111 yards to cap his decorated career. The All-American leaves CLU with every major career receiving record and the program's scoring record.
"It was fun making history here and I thank the coaches for giving me the opportunity as a freshman playing and having confidence in me to grow every year," Rogers said. "Playing with the four-year seniors was amazing. I am a little disappointed about not getting past the first round, but you have to hold your head up high and tell the young guys to go get it for us."
Goodman rushed 16 times for 70 yards to finish his freshman season with 1,161 yards, which ranks third all-time at CLU for a single season.
CLU starter Zach Shultis completed 18 of 26 for 171 yards and one interception. Fellow senior Kevin Ramay relieved Shultis in the fourth quarter, and threw for 89 yards and the two touchdowns to Rogers.
CLU's four-year seniors captured four straight Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles while never losing a single SCIAC game.
But the milestone playoff victory they coveted remained elusive.
"It was the best four years of my life," Younker said. "I left everything I had on the field. I have to thank the coaches for giving me the opportunity to play, for recruiting me and for trusting me. I wish things went different today, but I have no regrets. That's all I can ask for."
North Central 24 3 7 7 41
Cal Lutheran 0 7 0 14 21
NC — Kukuc 79 run (Dace kick), 14:18.
NC — Stanek 11 run (Dace kick), 7:07.
NC — FG Dace 38, 4:55.
NC — Stolzenburg 54 pass from Stanek (Dace kick), 0:18
CLU — Zirbel 3 run (Shultis kick), 4:34.
NC — FG Dace 49, 0:00.
NC — Stolzenburg 13 pass from Stanek (Dace kick), 9:11.
NC — O'Kane 34 pass from Stanek (Dace kick), 11:36.
CLU — Rogers 22 pass from Ramay (Shultis kick), 6:06.
CLU — Rogers 3 pass from Ramay (Shultis kick), 3:32.
Boxscore: NCC 41, CLU 21