/playoffs/2012/linfield-happy-to-still-be-here

On Linfield's journey, it's all secondary

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The Linfield defense graduated a bunch of players and lost a key piece to injury but has continued to perform, especially in terms of takeaways.
Linfield athletics photo

By Keith McMillan
D3sports.com

That Linfield is 11-0 and hosting a national quarterfinal is no surprise. From the opening kickoff, the Wildcats were loaded, with a preseason All-American returning on the nation’s best defensive line, plus a star quarterback, running back and kicker.

If there was one uncertainty, it was how Linfield would break in an entire set of new defensive backs in its 4-2-5 scheme, given that All-American Drew Fisher and his starting counterparts each used up their eligibility. Though the road to a December playoff game in McMinnville has been filled with surprises, not all of them pleasant -- such as the injuries to defensive tackle Tyler Steele and running back Josh Hill, the junior-dominated secondary has helped the Wildcats defense improve over last season.

Though Linfield’s defense generated just 17 turnovers in the regular season, they’ve caused 12 in two playoff wins, a big reason why they’re facing 12-0 UW-Oshkosh at home on Saturday.

The defensive line and linebackers again lead the nation in sacks and tackles for losses. That, plus the emergence of the secondary made this year’s defense improve by 30 yards per game overall, and by 50 per game against the pass.

Secondary coach Brandon Hazenberg said that’s no surprise at all.

“We knew when we recruited these guys as freshmen they were all talented. Our expectations aren’t going to drop off because we graduated a great group,” he said. “Who says we have to take a step back? Who says we can’t be better than they were?”

And so came the challenge for safety Colin Forman, monsterback Kyle Wright, rover Mike Nardoni and four cornerbacks who have each started at least once and played in at least eight games.

“We graduated [five] seniors in the secondary last year who were all three-year starters,” said Wright. “We were confident though. We’re a tight-knit group. We’ve worked hard and this is our time now.”

That was no more evident than in the 30-14 second-round win against North Central, when cornerbacks Michael Link and Brandon Funk combined for three interceptions and four pass break-ups, while Nardoni and Wright each had a tackle for a loss and linebacker Dominique Forrest returned an interception 73 yards for a touchdown.

“We knew we were going to have to make some plays to win in the playoffs,” said Forman. Both he and Wright referenced the defense’s mentality that it doesn’t depend on the offense to turn the tide, despite the fact that Mickey Inns has passed for 3,041 yards and 29 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and the offense averages 41.8 points per game.

 “We can’t worry about what the offense is going to do,” Wright said. “Our expectation is to go out and win the game.”

With five turnovers in the 27-24 first-round win against Pacific Lutheran, including a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Tyler Robitaille, the Wildcats have done their fair share.

But as they should in a 32-team, five-week postseason, the challenges get increasingly difficult. UW-Oshkosh presents an offense that is hurry-up – not allowing opponents to substitute defensive personnel – features motion, option plays and power run sets – sometimes forcing a defense to put nine in the box – and is led by quarterback Nate Wara, who is both mobile and an accurate passer.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever faced before,” said Wright.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us on Saturday,” said Hazenberg, who says you could probably look through the box score of any quarterfinal or semifinal game and find where the losing team gave up a pass play of 50 yards or more.

Defending the Titans means Linfield’s secondary will have to be disciplined against the big pass play, but also effective coming up and stopping the run. They’ve done both well enough so far, allowing 12 catches and 205 receiving yards to Pacific Lutheran’s Kyle Warner but no play longer than 36 yards, and 192 rushing yards to North Central’s Nick Kukuc, but on 25 carries, with none longer than 32 yards.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that most of this season’s secondary contributors were key special teamers who traveled to Linfield’s second-round 24-17 double-overtime loss at St. Thomas in 2010 and the 49-34 loss last year in the same round at Wesley. Instead of ignoring the reasons why the Wolverines scored 42 consecutive points in the second half of the 2011 loss, the Wildcats embrace the painful memory as a learning experience.

“We went into the half at Wesley riding high and mighty,” Forman said. “When you look back, you realize anything can happen, and you have to keep playing hard for the full 60 minutes. Most teams haven’t experienced that first-hand like we have.”

This unit hasn’t compared itself to Linfield’s 2004 champions, 2009 semifinalists or previous teams, says Hazenberg, so much as it has been conscious to enjoy the journey. The coach, who also heads special teams and recruiting efforts, says he recently during practice mentioned how lucky the team was to have nice weather and a December game at Maxwell Field, locally known as “the ‘Catdome”

Rather than dwell on teams who played in years past, Wright talked about winning to earn another week together, and Forman mentioned how much nicer it is to be playing in Oregon in front of family than boarding a plane for a six-hour ride to Delaware.

Hazenberg also encouraged the group, which includes Link, Funk, Chad Coburn – a one-time community college baseball player, the team’s top kick returner and a player who’s rushed for three touchdowns -- and jack-of-all-trades Ian Zarosinski, to look at the previous Linfield secondary and see all the good they did, but see their mistakes as well.

“This entire group loves to grind, to watch film, dive into the game plan,” says Hazenberg, calling the previous bunch “old school” players who couldn’t wait for game day.

Having a group that set the bar high gives the current secondary something to aspire to, and with a chance to beat UW-Oshkosh on Saturday, they can begin to write their own history.

Oct. 20: All times Eastern
Final
at Johns Hopkins 52, Gettysburg 0
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Oct. 21: All times Eastern
Final
at Framingham State 29, Westfield State 14
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Moravian 20, at Juniata 17
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at Salve Regina 41, Endicott 14
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at Thomas More 63, St. Vincent 13
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at Union 28, Hobart 23
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at Hamilton 27, Colby 24
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at Christopher Newport 27, William Paterson 19
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at Ithaca 35, St. John Fisher 10
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at Allegheny 44, Kenyon 35
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SUNY-Maritime 21, at Mount Ida 13
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Middlebury 43, at Bates 14
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at Springfield 68, Catholic 20
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at Amherst 21, Wesleyan 17
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at Trinity (Conn.) 63, Bowdoin 14
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Husson 48, at Gallaudet 21
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Wabash 35, at Oberlin 21
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at Utica 34, Buffalo State 12
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Ohio Northern 7, at Muskingum 6
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at Frostburg State 62, Montclair State 3
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at Wesley 34, Rowan 3
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at Stevenson 26, Albright 23
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Wittenberg 52, at DePauw 6
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at Albion 31, Alma 28
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at Guilford 45, Shenandoah 20
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Plymouth State 40, at Massachusetts Maritime 14
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Wooster 58, at Hiram 25
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Washington and Lee 36, at Hampden-Sydney 6
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at Anna Maria 36, Alfred State 34
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Bridgewater 31, at Emory and Henry 23
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at FDU-Florham 49, Wilkes 31
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Lebanon Valley 17, at Misericordia 0
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at St. Lawrence 36, Rochester 14
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RPI 30, at Alfred 15
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at Curry 46, Nichols 16
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at Salisbury 42, Southern Virginia 0
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Ferrum 27, at Brevard 24
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Randolph-Macon 63, at Apprentice 14
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at Susquehanna 21, Ursinus 14
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Cortland 34, at Morrisville State 20
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at Trine 50, Hope 14
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Trinity (Texas) 27, at Sewanee 21
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Wartburg 41, at Luther 16
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at Franklin and Marshall 56, Dickinson 0
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Tufts 21, at Williams 13
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Mount Union 66, at Wilmington 7
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MIT 30, at Coast Guard 21
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at Norwich 24, Maine Maritime 22
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at Marietta 44, Heidelberg 21
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Franklin 29, at Rose-Hulman 22
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John Carroll 48, at Capital 21
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at Manchester 28, Bluffton 21
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Mount St. Joseph 71, at Anderson 27
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UW-Whitewater 20, at UW-River Falls 7
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Kean 26, at TCNJ 3
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at LaGrange 59, Greensboro 10
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at Worcester State 45, Mass-Dartmouth 40
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Muhlenberg 40, at McDaniel 13
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Final
Western New England 45, at Becker 0
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at Maryville (Tenn.) 35, Methodist 14
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Adrian 36, at Kalamazoo 22
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Final
Denison 31, at Ohio Wesleyan 20
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Final - OT
at Washington and Jefferson 34, Westminster (Pa.) 33
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Berry 37, at Millsaps 22
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at Benedictine 43, Olivet 37
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Birmingham-Southern 31, at Austin 24
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 45, Belhaven 7
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at UW-Stout 23, UW-Stevens Point 17
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Eureka 37, at MacMurray 20
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at Illinois Wesleyan 13, Carthage 10
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Nebraska Wesleyan 14, at Buena Vista 13
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Lakeland 48, at Wisconsin Lutheran 0
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at Aurora 28, Rockford 21
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at Concordia-Chicago 37, Concordia (Wis.) 17
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at St. Olaf 29, Carleton 26
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at St. John's 41, Gustavus Adolphus 17
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at Concordia-Moorhead 42, Augsburg 20
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St. Thomas 84, at Hamline 0
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Final
Westminster (Mo.) 24, at Greenville 14
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at Loras 44, Coe 38
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Monmouth 61, at Cornell 10
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Wheaton (Ill.) 56, at North Park 0
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Final
Northwestern (Minn.) 30, at Martin Luther 14
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Hardin-Simmons 33, at Texas Lutheran 30
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at Lake Forest 70, Grinnell 6
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at Millikin 56, Carroll 35
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at Macalester 47, Ripon 31
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at St. Norbert 38, Lawrence 6
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St. Scholastica 49, at Crown 21
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at Iowa Wesleyan 24, Minnesota-Morris 17
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UW-Platteville 34, at UW-Eau Claire 14
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at WPI 41, Merchant Marine 7
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at Centre 42, Rhodes 35
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Final
Hanover 49, at Earlham 14
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at Chicago 55, Beloit 12
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UW-Oshkosh 42, at UW-La Crosse 28
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Final - OT
at Dubuque 28, Simpson 27
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at North Central (Ill.) 54, Augustana 2
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Final
at East Texas Baptist 68, Louisiana College 35
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at Brockport 45, Hartwick 0
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Final
Western Connecticut 27, at Bridgewater State 20
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Final
Chapman 38, at La Verne 21
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Pacific 17, at Lewis and Clark 7
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Pacific Lutheran 27, at Willamette 14
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at Whitworth 38, Puget Sound 23
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Redlands 42, at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 25
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at Linfield 12, George Fox 6
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Sul Ross State 52, at Howard Payne 15
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at Castleton 17, Dean 14
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N.C. Wesleyan 21, at Averett 15
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at Otterbein 37, Baldwin Wallace 29
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Case Western Reserve 45, at Geneva 7
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Carnegie Mellon 42, at Thiel 10
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at Illinois College 23, Knox 13
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at Cal Lutheran 60, Whittier 34
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Cancelled
Occidental at Pomona-Pitzer
Oct. 20: All times Eastern
Final
at Johns Hopkins 52, Gettysburg 0
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Oct. 21: All times Eastern
Final
at Wesley 34, Rowan 3
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Final
at Frostburg State 62, Montclair State 3
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Final
Wittenberg 52, at DePauw 6
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Final
at Springfield 68, Catholic 20
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Final
Wartburg 41, at Luther 16
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Final
Mount Union 66, at Wilmington 7
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Final
at Marietta 44, Heidelberg 21
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Final - OT
at Washington and Jefferson 34, Westminster (Pa.) 33
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 33, at Texas Lutheran 30
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Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 45, Belhaven 7
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Final
St. Thomas 84, at Hamline 0
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Final
at St. John's 41, Gustavus Adolphus 17
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 13, Carthage 10
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Final
at Concordia-Moorhead 42, Augsburg 20
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Final
Berry 37, at Millsaps 22
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Final
UW-Platteville 34, at UW-Eau Claire 14
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Final
UW-Oshkosh 42, at UW-La Crosse 28
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Final
at North Central (Ill.) 54, Augustana 2
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Final
at Brockport 45, Hartwick 0
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Final
at Linfield 12, George Fox 6
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Final
Case Western Reserve 45, at Geneva 7
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