Panthers trek to No. 9 North Central for opening round of NCAA Playoffs

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HANOVER, Ind. – The Hanover College football team returns to the NCAA Division III National Playoffs this weekend for the first time in 15 years as they travel to face No. 9 North Central (Ill.) in opening round action. The Panthers, who are receiving votes in the most recent American Football Coaches Association national poll, are slated for a noon kickoff, central time, Saturday, Nov. 17.

PANTHERS BACK IN THE PLAYOFFS: The Blue and Red's participation Saturday will be its first in the national postseason tournament since the 2003 season. Combining the program's national playoff appearances for the NCAA and the NAIA, HC is 2-12 all-time in postseason play. Included in the all-time record is a 1-6 mark in NCAA Division III games. Hanover is 1-3 in opening round Division III contests, which includes a 20-3 road win at Hope (Mich.) in 2000.

CHAMPIONS OF THE HEARTLAND: The Panthers earned their spot into the national playoffs after securing a share of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship with Franklin (Ind.) and Mt. St. Joseph (Ohio). All three schools posted 7-1 conference records, but HC received the league's automatic national playoff bid on the fifth tiebreaker, regional strength of schedule. The championship was a first for current head coach Matt Theobald and marked the program's first since 2003.

VICTORY BELL BACK WHERE IT BELONGS: Hanover closed out the regular season with a 23-20 victory over rival-Franklin in the 88th annual Victory Bell Classic. The Panthers rallied from deficits in all four quarters before eventually going up 23-20 on a 48-yard touchdown pass from junior AJ Breit (Louisville, Ky.) to classmate Taylor Bleistein (Wesley Chapel, Fla.) with less than four minutes remaining. Senior linebacker Zach Donan (New Albany, Ind.) helped secure the Bell for the first time in his career after forcing and recovering a fumble near midfield with 2:42 showing on the game clock.

Breit engineered the Panther offense with three total touchdowns, two in the air and one on the ground. The junior finished with a career-high 274 passing yards, while also leading HC to a perfect five-for-five on fourth down conversions. Defensively, Donan added seven tackles and one interception, while his classmate Brody Dell (Tipton, Ind.) led the team with 13 stops.

SERIES HISTORY WITH NCC: Hanover and North Central will be meeting for just the third time when they kickoff Saturday. The Panthers won both of the previous two meetings, 24-7 in 1997 and 23-14 in 1996. This will be the first postseason meeting between the two sides. The institutions though, are familiar foes in postseason play, as Hanover prevailed over NCC in the second round of the Division III men's basketball tournament in 2016-17, en route to an Elite Eight appearance.

SCOUTING THE CARDINALS: North Central is currently ranked No. 9 in both the AFCA national poll, as well as the D3football.com poll. The Cardinals posted a 9-1 regular season record, including an 8-1 mark in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) to earn their third straight league title. North Central is 4-1 at home this fall, with the lone setback coming to nationally-ranked Wheaton (Ill.).

Just as they were last week, the Panther defense will be up against one of the nation's top offensive attacks, as the Cardinals are averaging 516.7 yards of total offense per game. Leading the way has been the passing attack, as Broc Rutter ranks second in the CCIW and sixth nationally in yards per game at 307.5. This will be HC's third opponent in four weeks that has had a quarterback averaging 300-plus yards per game.

North Central also possesses one of the top defenses in Division III, allowing just over 14 points and 290 yards per game. Derreck Warkenthien is averaging 8.3 tackles per game and has 17.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two forced fumbles this season.

Contact: Tyler Jester

jestert@hanover.edu