North Central’s Luke Lehnen resets bar for college QBs. Can Glenwood graduate do same for Cardinals?

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Perhaps no play better encapsulates North Central College junior quarterback Luke Lehnen’s special talent more than his touchdown pass to Charles Coleman on Saturday.

It’s just a 7-yard TD pass in the box score. On film, however, it’s a work of art.

Wartburg’s defense blew up the Cardinals’ play, but Lehnen’s instincts kicked in immediately. The Glenwood graduate ran to the far side of the field and kept moving backward to avoid the pressure, eventually firing the ball to Coleman in the flat from the 23-yard line. Coleman walked into the end zone.

“It’s second nature at this point,” Lehnen said. “I have my legs. I can use them to extend the play as long as I can and find my receivers open.”

Lehnen extended No. 1 NCC’s season, too, throwing three TD passes during its 34-27 victory in the NCAA Division III national semifinals in Waverly, Iowa.

The defending national champion Cardinals (14-0), who have won 29 games in a row over two seasons, will play No. 11 Cortland (13-1) in the Stagg Bowl in Salem, Virginia, at 6 p.m. Friday, looking to win their third national title in their fourth straight appearance. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Lehnen’s teammates know they need to be alert even if a play appears to be broken. He can turn it around in seconds.

“You can’t wait for Saturdays because something electric can happen at any time,” NCC offensive coordinator Eric Stuedemann said. “He never gives up. He didn’t give up on some of those plays Saturday.

“That wasn’t the first time it’s happened. It’s happened throughout the year. It’s a credit to all 11 guys on the field.”

Lehnen’s athleticism jumps off the tape. He doesn’t make only those splash plays, however. He makes just about every other play as well.

Lehnen’s passer efficiency rating of 270.2 is the highest in NCAA history regardless of class. He also has a chance to set the Division III single-season records for yards per completed pass, yards per pass attempt and percentage of passes completed for touchdowns.

Lehnen, who also plays baseball for NCC, has completed 162 for 215 (75.4%) for 3,228 yards with 46 TDs and just two interceptions. He is also NCC’s second-leading rusher with 735 yards and 11 TDs on 100 attempts.

Last week, Lehnen was named one of five finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, the highest individual honor in Division III. He would be the third NCC player to win the award, joining Broc Rutter (2019) and Ethan Greenfield (2022). He was named a first-team All-American on Monday.

“He made a lot of plays every Saturday worthy of that award,” NCC coach Brad Spencer said. “He has the off-field and community credentials as well. He takes on responsibility himself for a lot of things.

“He’s such a mature young man, and above everything he’s an outstanding competitor. He’s a pretty hard guy to stop. He’s just an unbelievable football player and captain, leader and an even better person.”

The winner of the Gagliardi Trophy will be announced right before the game on Friday. When Rutter and Greenfield won, the team prevailed in the national championship game.

That would be the dream scenario for Lehnen, who has another year of eligibility remaining and intends to return next season regardless of the game’s outcome.

“My focus isn’t on winning it,” Lehnen said of the award. “It would be a great honor, but my focus is on preparing for this game Friday and doing what I can do to help me and my teammates have the best chance of winning.

“It’s a nice extra thing to win, but I definitely think the team trophy is more important.”

Paul Johnson is a freelance reporter for The Naperville Sun.


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