November 17, 2010

Playoffs or no, PLU does its job

More news about: Pacific Lutheran
PLU v. Willamette
Every Man a Lute, the Pacific Lutheran motto, extends to the back of the Lutes' jerseys.

I want to get something off my chest. Yes, I know I’m supposed to be an objective journalist, but this just has to be said:

I love Pacific Lutheran.

Make no mistake, I bleed cardinal and gold, but there’s something about PLU that’s just captivating. It’s their wacky warm-up routine. It’s the way they knock opponents flat, then help them back up. It’s their unfailingly positive head coach, Scott Westering, about whom a colleague in the press box commented, “I’ve never seen somebody yell so loud without swearing.”

It’s PLU’s fans. You’ll never see a derogatory T-shirt or hear a negative chant from the Lute faithful. More than likely, you’ll hear “Attaway, Lutes!” Or, if the team’s in a tight spot – as they were on Saturday, down 21-17 to Willamette with less than five minutes to play – you’ll hear my personal favorite:

“Everybody do their job!”

In the end, the Lutes did just that, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just over a minute remaining, then holding off a furious last-minute Bearcat drive. The victory gave No. 17 PLU (8-1, 5-1 NWC) their finest regular season since the last time they made the playoffs, in 2001, but it wasn’t enough to push them into the field of 32 this time around.

“We kicked into [playoff] mode after we lost to Linfield,” Westering said. “Our attitude was, ‘Our playoffs start right now.’ ”

It was certainly a playoff atmosphere at Sparks Stadium on Saturday, and the Lutes looked more than ready to play. PLU running back Alec Simmons (a three-year backup who’s generously listed at 5-8, 205 pounds) and quarterback Jordan Rasmussen picked Willamette apart early, and led 14-0 halfway through the first quarter.

The Bearcats woke up – with some help from an injury to Lutes’ standout wide receiver Greg Ford – eventually tying the game at 14 in the third before scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 4:40 to go in the game.

But Westering is one of the country’s best playcallers, and he simply undressed Willamette’s defense on PLU’s final drive. On the winning touchdown, Tyler Bowen was so wide open he could have had time for a quick snack before catching Rasmussen’s pass.

“The touchdown play was a decision we made before we started the drive,” Westering said. “It was a play we’d run earlier and Willamette had adjusted to, but we felt that the second receiver would be wide open, which is what you saw.”

But even as the team engaged their fans in PLU’s trademark call-and-response “Hey Lutes! … Attaway!” chant after the game, most people realized that the 17th-ranked team in the country wasn’t going to make the playoffs.

The Lutes’ strength of schedule was .490, just barely lower than the West’s last Pool C team, Coe, at .493. But unlike the Kohawks, the Lutes owned a two-touchdown win over another playoff team (SCIAC champion Cal Lutheran); also unlike the Kohawks, the Lutes are an historically successful team, winning the national title in 1999. The process left Westering unusually frustrated.

“When they say it’s by the strength of schedule numbers, why have regional committees?” Westering said. “Just have a computer guy in Kansas City say ‘These teams are in.’ ”

Still, focusing on a playoff snub does a disservice to the phenomenal season the Lutes have had this year. Coming off four losing seasons in Westering’s last five years, PLU switched their defense from a 4-2 alignment to a more flexible 3-4, put a significant emphasis on running the football, and developed a deadly two-minute drill that led to last-minute scores in seven of their nine games this year. A senior-dominated offense executed Westering’s multiple sets perfectly, and a typically undersized defense brought astonishing amounts of pressure. In other words, as Westering puts it:

“Everybody did their job.”

Attaway Lutes, indeed.

A (brief) playoff preview
There are 49 teams in the conference that are covered by “Around the West,” and only seven of them will be advancing to the playoffs: six in the West-ish bracket led by St. Thomas, and one (UW-Whitewater) in the North-ish bracket led by North Central.

While most observers are leaning towards No. 16 Cal Lutheran and No. 8 Linfield as the most intriguing matchup of the first round, I disagree. As the Wildcats’ season has progressed, I think they’re showing more and more that their season-opening loss at CLU was an aberration. Linfield simply bulldozed its way through the always-tough NWC this season, with only one team (PLU) finishing a game within two touchdowns. Quarterback Aaron Boehme (2,154 yards, 22 TDs, 7 int.) is in form, while defensive end Eric Hedin finished with a whopping 17 sacks. Especially with the game in McMinnville, I just don’t see CLU having the horses to stay with the ‘Cats.

Instead, I’m going with No. 11 Wartburg and No. 14 Bethel as the most exciting first round matchup. These are two of the best defenses in the country, folks. Nationally, Bethel ranks fifth in rushing defense, sixth in total defense, and eighth in scoring defense. Wartburg’s national numbers are a bit lower, but here’s the one that counts: the Knights are fifth in turnover margin.

Also, keep an eye on Coe. The No. 13 (but seventh-seeded) Kohawks pulled off a shocker at St. John’s last year, but they’re in a much better position to do it again this year at No. 15 (but second-seeded) Wheaton.

How smart am I, after all?
I’ll admit up front that I stole most of this idea from Ryan Tipps over at “Around the Mid-Atlantic,” but this being my first season covering the West, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at some of my preseason predictions. How did I do in picking an exciting “10 Games to Watch for 2010?”

Sept. 11: California Lutheran 47, Linfield 42. Grade: A. If you don’t think a come-from-behind 47-42 CLU victory was exciting, then you must live in McMinnville. But with a rematch at Linfield this week, the Wildcats have a better than even shot at revenge.

Sept. 18: Pacific 7, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 39. Grade: B-. I’d hoped the upstart Boxers could make this closer than 37-9, but I’m cutting myself some slack because I at least watched C-M-S this year.

Sept. 25: Coe 38, Central 28. Grade: A. The Kohawks’ comeback win was just as riveting as, I’d hoped it would be, with the added bonus of being the victory that sent them to the playoffs.

Oct. 2: St. John’s 26, St. Thomas 27 (OT). Grade: A. Granted, this was a prediction that anybody could have made, but the absolutely nuts 27-26 Tommie victory in front of a Division III record crowd takes home Game of the Year honors.

Oct. 2: Linfield 35, Willamette 7. Grade: F. If you really want to read about this, see my Around the Nation postcard from McMinnville. But that’s all I’m going to say.

Oct. 2: Redlands 21, California Lutheran 24. Grade: A. Ultimately the SCIAC’s championship game, this contest was only over after a game-tying field goal was blocked as time expired.

Oct. 9: Bethel 17, St. John’s 14. Grade: B+. St. John’s made a very late run to close a 17-0 gap to 17-14, so this game wasn’t quite as close as it looked. Still, it might have been different if the Royals hadn’t recovered a Johnnie fumble on their own one-yard line.

Oct. 16: UW-Stout 21, UW-Stevens Point 27. Grade: A. Honestly, this was the only game I picked for which I had to look up the score: a 27-21 win for the Pointers. But it had five lead changes and a controversial ending when Stout’s late go-ahead touchdown was called back. Exciting? Absolutely.

Oct. 23: St. Thomas 10, Bethel 6. Grade: A. With the way UST had been steamrolling all non-St. John’s competition this year, I was worried about this one. Boy, was I wrong. St. Thomas may have come away with the 10-6 win, but the Royals’ defense is for real.

Oct. 30: UW-Whitewater 27, UW-Stevens Point 14. Grade: B+. This 27-14 game was a lot closer than it looked according to Keith McMillan, and I trust his judgment. Anyone who stays within two touchdowns of UWW is a very good team.

Overall GPA: 3.33 (B+). Not bad for a first-year columnist, though I did completely whiff on Wartburg games. We’ll see if we can up that into the A range next season.

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Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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