PUYALLUP - John Shaffer slipped away from a couple of tacklers, reversed field and raced 32 yards for the winning touchdown with about seven minutes left as No. 3-ranked Linfield held off Pacific Lutheran, 31-24, on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Sparks Stadium.
The Wildcats improved their overall record to 4-0 in a closely contested game that was the Northwest Conference opener for both teams. Pacific Lutheran, playing its third consecutive nationally ranked opponent to open the season, is now 1-2 overall and 0-1 in the NWC.
Shaffer's winning touchdown run came at the conclusion of a five-play, 70-yard drive and turned what looked like a loss of yards into the winning points. He swept to the right, escaped a tackler, maintained his balance with one hand on the ground, and then followed a block by quarterback Mickey Inns around the left side and into the end zone.
Pacific Lutheran had two more possessions after that but could not scoring the tying touchdown. The first possession ended when the Wildcats stuffed Niko Madison on a fourth-and-inches right at midfield, and the second was stopped when Colin Forman intercepted Dalton Ritchey, again at midfield, before returning the ball to the PLU 11-yard line. After that Inns took a knee three times to run out the clock, giving Linfield its 11th straight win in the series.
While Linfield had dominated the previous 10 games, outscoring the Lutes by an average of almost 34 points per contest, this was a return to some of the classic Pacific Lutheran versus Linfield clashes of the 1970s through 1990s.
The Lutes took the opening drive 82 yards on just four play, scoring when wide receiver Kellen Westering took a short pass, spun away from a defender and then raced 71 yards to paydirt. That score came less than three minutes into the contest, and PLU's next touchdown came about 2 1/2 minutes later following a Greg Hibbard interception and 28-yard return to the Linfield 17-yard line. Dalton Ritchey hit Kyle Warner with a 6-yard pass, and after Nick Kaylor's kick the Lutes led 14-0.
A PLU miscue on its next possession led the Linfield's first touchdown. Ritchey bobbled the center snap in the shotgun formation and Linfield's KeAlii Poomaihealani fell on the ball at the PLU 6-yard line. On a fourth-and-goal, Inns passed to Westly Meng for three yards and a touchdown.
Through the first quarter PLU had a 134-33 dominance in total offense, and on the second play of the second period the Lutes scored again. This time Westering leaped above two Linfield defenders to pull in a 32-yard scoring strike from Ritchey. The athletic play capped a seven-play, 64-yard drive and put the home team on top, 21-7.
That touchdown strike accounted for nearly half of PLU's second quarter yardage, however, as Linfield pulled even by the intermission. First, Inns hit Zach Young with a 15-yard touchdown pass to cap a 12-play, 67-yard drive, and then Inns found Aaron Hire with an 8-yard aerial with 7:22 remaining in the half, ending a short scoring drive set up by a 27-yard punt return.
The third quarter belonged to the Wildcats, who despite gaining 131 yards on 23 plays to 25 yards on eight plays for the Lutes, managed just three points on a 45-yard Josh Kay field goal.
Pacific Lutheran's defense made the next big play as Conor Gabbert forced Stephen Nasca to fumble, with Hibbard falling on the ball at the PLU 41-yard line. The Lutes took the ball down the field and looked to have a touchdown pass to Lucas Sontra on a third-and-19, but Sontra couldn't hold on to the ball. Kaylor came into the game and booted a 37-yard field goal to tie the score with 9:00 left in the game.
That left it up to the 'Cats and Shaffer to drive the ball down the field and score the winning touchdown.
Linfield ended up with 341 total yards to 315 for the Lutes. Inn was 17-for-31 for 208 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, while Shaffer netted 83 yards on 14 carries and Nasca added 62 on 17 attempts. David Singler had four catches for 39 yards and Charlie Poppen added three grabs for 69 yards as Inns connected with nine different receivers.
Ritchey was 18-for-33 for 296 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Westering had five grabs for 146 yards and two scores, Daniel Herr had five grabs for 31 yards, and Warner ended up with four catches for 60 yards. The PLU ground game, hindered by seven Linfield sacks, accounted for just 19 net yards on 27 carries.
A trio of Linfield players - Forman, Ian Zarosinski and Ty Robitaille - all ended up with six tackles and Michael MacClanathan had two quarterback sacks.
Pacific Lutheran returns to conference action next Saturday when it travels to Portland, Ore., to face Lewis & Clark College. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. at Griswold Stadium on the L&C campus.
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