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DECATUR -- Millikin entered Saturday's meeting with North Central University proudly sporting a 2-0 record and the statistical credentials that hinted it could possibly hang with the nationally-ranked Cardinals from Naperville. 

Sixty minutes later, it was clear Millikin wasn't quite ready the big time yet, losing 51-21 to North Central College in a College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin game Saturday.

Millikin Coach Dan Gritti bluntly laid out the honest truth.

"We performed horribly," he said. "We were not ready for primetime today. We were not ready when the game started and I think we were a little intimidated to play a team of this caliber." 

The first quarter saw Millikin (2-1, 0-1) keep North Central close, allowing the Cardinals (3-0, 2-0) to score just one rushing touchdown and trail 7-0. 

But the Big Blue defense could contain North Central quarterback Broc Rutter for only so long and the second quarter saw 34 Cardinal points scored, including a passing and rushing touchdown for Rutter. 

North Central running back Dominick Muoghalu took advantage of every opportunity he had with the ball and ended the game with the unusual stat line of 12 carries for 41 yards and three rushing touchdowns. 

Rutter and the Cardinal offense would march down the field and Muoghalu would slam it home from inside the 5-yard line. 

"All I can do is thank God and my offensive lineman," Moughalu said. "They directed me to the right holes and God directed me to the right places and I'm glad I found the end zone."

Along with demonstrating offensively why North Central is the No. 5-ranked Division III team in the nation, the team was also motivated by a serious leg injury to wide receiver Ryan Kuhl in the first quarter that saw him being carted off the field on a stretcher with his teammates surrounding him. 

Muoghalu used the injury to power the Cardinals offense.

"One of our players went down and seeing our teammates use that as fuel to get better and play for him -- it was one of the things I loved to see today," he said.

Big Blue trailed 41-7 at halftime and the team took advantage of the cooler temperatures inside the Griswold Center, not emerging for the second half until the halftime countdown clock had nearly reached zero. 

High humidity levels combined with game-time temperatures in the lower 90's, triggered conference rules that called for additional five minute hydration time outs halfway through each quarter.

These timeouts can be frustrating for a team with a quick moving offense looking to tire out a defense or for a team which has finally found its offensive rhythm. 

But according to the players, the weather didn't play a factor for either team.

"I don't think the heat had anything to do with our performance," Millikin receiver Jordan Smith said. "We are used to the heat. We play on this turf everyday, we practice on it everyday. We just didn't come out to play as an offense."

Gritti's halftime speech focused on putting the rough first half for the Big Blue behind them.

"Those last 30 minutes are done," Gritti said to his team at the half. "We can either feel sorry for ourselves or go out there and complete."

The team was clearly listening and the third quarter, where Millikin got touchdowns passes from quarterback Nico Stepina to Gerald Perry from seven- and 20-yards out.

Millikin fans may have begun to wonder if a second come-from-behind victory would be in store following the team's fourth quarter victory against Rose-Hulman two weeks ago.

But the Big Blue couldn't muster the magic in consecutive games.

Stepina continued his string of strong offensive games by notching 264 yards passing and three touchdowns, stats that might have spelled victory for Millikin against a lesser opponent.

The quarterback also tossed his first interception of the season which he promptly saw returned for a pick-6 by North Central lineman Josh Leonhard.

Along with Perry's strong receiver play in the second half, another bright spot for Millikin was Smith's acrobatic catches. 

Smith, a Shelbyville graduate, led the team with six receptions for 115 yards which included a deep bomb of 46 yards from Stepina in the third quarter. 

Gritti was impressed with his receivers' performance.

"Both of those guys give you everything they've got," Gritti said. "When we look at the film, I'm sure they will have played exceptionally well. We know we have them but they can't just be our offensive safety net. We have to use them in an all-around effective offense rather than hopping and praying that we can get the ball to them."

Along with impressive receiver play, Gritti was also a bit optimistic that a lesson may have been learned from this blowout. 

"We are at the point in this program that we are supposed to compete in every game and we didn't get that done today," Gritti said. "We have to learn from this and keep getting better from the experience. We now know where we are as a team and where we have to go in the future."

Millikin's immediate future will find them heading to Chicago next Saturday to face North Park University in another CCIW game.



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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