Willamette goes back to basics

When the Willamette Bearcats’ plane touched down in Portland, Ore., on Sunday evening, they expected a fairly routine ride back to their campus in Salem, about an hour south.

That is, until the bus they were waiting for got a flat tire, causing an hour’s delay.

Then the replacement bus broke down on the highway – with the team inside.

“It took us longer to get from Portland to Salem than it did for us to get from Chicago to Portland,” coach Mark Speckman said.

Ralph Pineda
Ralph Pineda had two takeaways for Willamette in its win.
Photo by Mark Kinslow

But if ground transportation was a problem for the Bearcats on Sunday night, it certainly wasn’t on Saturday afternoon, as Willamette rushed for 277 of its 344 total yards in a 33-14 victory over UW-Stevens Point. The Bearcats averaged 6.3 yards per carry and had seven players rush for positive yardage in a victory that put them in the drivers seat for a possible Pool C bid if they can’t beat Linfield and win the Northwest Conference automatic bid.

It’s no secret that Willamette likes to run the ball: The Bearcats averaged more than 234 yards per game on the ground last year. But WU’s recent resurgence has largely coincided with the revival of their passing attack. Senior wide receiver Scott Schoettgen is perhaps the Northwest Conference’s most feared deep threat, and coaches are high on the potential of sophomore transfer Jake Knecht. Sophomore quarterbacks Brian Widing and Kevin Ramay are both capable of delivering accurate passes, and both saw playing time on Saturday.

On Saturday, though, the Bearcats’ two quarterbacks were just 6-for-12 passing for 67 yards and a touchdown. Those are circa-2004 numbers.

The reason?

“The wind was really a factor [at Stevens Point],” Speckman said. “I was really hoping to win the coin toss and defer, so I told our captains ‘Whatever happens, don’t lose the coin toss.’

“Of course they lost the coin toss.”

So the Bearcats returned to their roots, and the results were stunning. After their first two possessions netted negative yards, Willamette’s offense scored four of their next five times they touched the ball, including drives of 82, 63, and 28 yards that took a combined 9:37. But it was the final drive of the first half, a lightning-quick seven play, 80 yard drive that took just 1:37 off the clock, that broke the Pointers’ backs.

Taking over at their own 20 with 1:40 left in the half, Bearcats tailback Jamiere Abney went for 37 yards on second down to move the ball into Pointer territory. Terrell Malley took it another 10 before the Bearcats finally shifted to the pass, eventually hitting Knecht for the touchdown with three seconds left.

“Initially when we got the ball, we just didn’t want to make any mistakes,” Speckman said. “But we hit big on a couple of plays, and our philosophy changed a bit.”

The wind also affected the Pointers, who only got the ball to immensely talented wideout Jared Jenkins six times in the half, and one of those was a Willamette-style fly sweep. Redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Barnes was picked off twice, with one or two other balls sailing long.

But it was the Bearcats who were able to adjust, and now have at least one signature win they can point to when the regional rankings come out in October.

“Every game is a playoff game for us,” Speckman said. “Our guys got into Willamette because they’re smart, so I hope they’ve figured that out.”

This Friday, the Bearcats will be back on the bus: first for their trip up to Portland airport, then again for the journey from Dallas to Abilene, where they’ll take on 14th-ranked Hardin-Simmons.

Bus rides notwithstanding, look for Willamette to keep it on the ground.

Knights make a statement

After a disappointing 6-4, 5-3 campaign last year, Wartburg announced its candidacy for the IIAC title in stunning fashion on Saturday, dropping then-No. 17 Monmouth 27-7. The Knights have always been known for excellent defense, but the number they did on an offense led by consensus preseason All-American quarterback Alex Tanney was something to behold. Tanney got his numbers (25-for-40, 224 yards) but was picked off twice and had almost zero support from the running game. Literally. Wartburg, led by five players with at least five tackles, held the Scots to exactly 2 yards rushing on 21 attempts. That’s 0.1 yards per carry. Whether or not the Knights are really capable of challenging Central and Coe remains to be seen, but they’ve definitely inserted themselves into the conversation.

Storm clouds over Carleton

While preseason MIAC favorite St. Thomas took care of business in relatively uneventful fashion (a 40-7 thrashing of St. Norbert), one Minnesota team got an unexpected shock from an unassuming opponent as Carleton fell 49-35 to UMAC opponent Crown on the road. The Knights were 7-3 and one win away from the MIAC title just two years ago, then backslid to 3-7 last season. But with 21 of 22 starters returning, most observers at least expected Carleton to move back toward the top of the MIAC. That’s in serious doubt now.

Still, it’s important to give the Storm proper credit for the UMAC’s biggest win in several years. Quarterback Adam Hayes was simply superb, going 31-43 for 342 yards and six (six!) touchdowns with no interceptions, Tyler Hallblade gained 100 yards on 22 carries, and the defense made just enough plays to win.

Wacky WIAC

It was a mixed bag for the WIAC this week. La Crosse dropped a 33-20 game to East Texas Baptist, while Whitewater did what Whitewater does, cruising to a 35-0 win over Adrian. Questions about the Warhawks’ kicking game linger, however, particularly after starter Stephen Guelff missed all three of his PAT attempts. Platteville won its 12th consecutive opening game under head coach Mike Emendorfer, beating Buena Vista 31-2, but Stout did suffer a disappointing loss, falling 14-13 in overtime to Black Hills St. Two more schools put together impressive games in spite of losses: River Falls took No. 11 Ohio Northern to the brink in a 35-21 loss, while Oshkosh did the same to No. 7 Central, falling 34-28. Depending on how Stevens Point recovers, the WIAC behind Whitewater could be wide open.

Oxy takes another hit

Only one team in the SCIAC was in action last weekend, as Occidental opened their season against Menlo, a former D-III school that switched affiliation to the NAIA this year. The Tigers have had a rough couple of weeks since coach Dale Widolff was suspended for unspecified NCAA violations, and it only got worse with an ugly 42-25 loss to the Oaks. Oxy should handle Puget Sound this week, but if they don’t it could be a long season in Eagle Rock.

Boxers show some punch

Finally, big congratulations to Pacific, where two years worth of planning finally became reality when the Boxers took the field against Puget Sound. Even more heartening for fans in Forest Grove, Ore., Keith Buckley’s team settled down after some initial jitters to turn outscore Puget Sound 16-7 in the second half, and kicker Jon Lee was named NWC special teams player of the week after going 4-for-4 on field goals – including one that he kicked off the ground on a botched snap. The Boxers are young and they’ll take their lumps this year, but they’ve got a couple of great chances to pick up wins, starting with their home opener on Sept. 19 against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

Contact me!

With a region as big as the West, I’m always looking for your input. If you have any comments, suggestions, story ideas, or crazy statistics, send me an e-mail at tim.walsh@d3sports.com. Enjoy the weekend!

Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated 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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