McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Passing their first NCAA Division III postseason exam with flying colors, the Linfield Wildcats stormed past their Northwest Conference rivals, the Pacific Lutheran Lutes, 42-21 Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at sunny Maxwell Field.
Throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for two more, Linfield quarterback Josh Yoder piloted the unbeaten and second-ranked Wildcats to a second-round matchup against Hamden-Sydney (Va.), which defeated Maryville (Tenn.) 42-34 in another first-round game. The site will be finalized and announced Sunday morning by the NCAA.
PLU (8-2) ended its season in McMinnville for a second consecutive year. The Lutes' only losses this fall came at the hands of their longtime regional nemesis, the Wildcats, who prevailed 29-0 in the teams' October regular-season meeting.
Linfield (10-0) forced three turnovers and sacked Lutes quarterback Dalton Ritchey three times. Linebacker Dominique Forrest led a smothering defense with eight tackles, including six unassisted and two for loss, plus a fumble recovery. Mike Nardoni contributed five tackles, including three for loss, forced a fumble by Ritchey, and returned an interception 27 yards to set up a touchdown.
Linfield scored on four of its first five possessions. Yoder completed 16 of 26 passes for 204 yards and ran another 45 on option plays. He twice laced TD tosses to wideout Evan Peterson, including the back-breaking score with 6:54 to play.
Wildcats tailback Josh Hill ran for a game-high 68 yards on 16 carries. Charlie Poppen caught six passes for 100 yards. Linfield was limited to 379 total yards, though the 'Cats did enjoy an average starting field position of their own 47 and were an efficient 6-for-6 after advancing into the red zone.
Taking the opening kickoff nine plays for a touchdown, the Wildcats snagged a measure of early momentum. Yoder ran seven yards for the game's first TD, skipping untouched across the goal line. The Wildcats led 7-0 with just with 3½ minutes gone.
After an exchange of punts, the Lutes took over at their own 17-yard line, but Richey fumbled on the first play and the Forrest recovered at the 12. Two plays later, Yoder carried the ball across the goal line from three yards out and Linfield was in command 14-0 with 4:42 left in the first quarter.
PLU appeared to thwart a Linfield drive when Jonny Vollard intercepted a Yoder pass at the PLU 6, but an offsides penalty nullified the would-be turnover. Yoder lofted a 12-yard pass to Charlie Poppen in the end zone four plays after the penalty, opening up a three-touchdown advantage for the NWC champion Wildcats.
Special teams set up the next touchdown. Jordan Giza blocked a PLU punt, giving the Wildcats another short field at the Lutes' 22. Peterson pulled in a 6-yard touchdown toss from Yoder and the extra point by Josh Repp stretched the Linfield lead to 28-0 with 7½ minutes remaining before intermission.
With 2:49 left in the half, the Lutes crossed midfield for the first time, gaining 41 yards on a long pass from Ritchey to halfback Niko Madison down the right sideline that put the ball at the Linfield 37. PLU ran 10 largely unproductive plays trying grab the momentum heading into the break, but Ben Welch's catch-and-run was stopped short at the 11 by Colin Forman on the final play.
Linfield held PLU to 102 first-half yards, 69 of them coming on the Lutes' final drive. The 'Cats produced a modest 194 yards during the first two quarters, but converted 7 of 9 third-down plays at the same time as the Lutes were struggling to sustain drives
A 22-yard kickoff return by Welch to start the second half was a precursor to the longest play of the game. Tight end Lucas Sontra caught a Ritchey pass on first down and blazed 72 yards to the Linfield 5. Two running plays by PLU were stopped for little or no gain, and on third down, Ritchey threw incomplete. Desperately needing a score on fourth down, Ritchey found Sontra for a 12-yard touchdown, snipping the margin to 28-7.
Apparently buoyed by some halftime adjustments, the Lutes outgained the Wildcats 159-52 during the third quarter, yet came away with only seven points.
Entering the fourth period, PLU made it a run at the Wildcats when Ritchey and Sontra paired for another scoring pass play 13:41 left that put the score at 28-14.
Needing to keep PLU at arm's length, the Wildcats mounted a 12-play, 76-yard march, extending their lead back to three touchdowns on a 6-yard run by Hill with 9:26 to go.
As the Lutes began to press, Nardoni picked off Ritchey and returned the ball to the PLU 20. One play was all Yoder needed to put more points on the scoreboard as the senior dialed up Peterson for a second touchdown and the Wildcats were firmly in control, 42-14.
Sontra, who ended with four catches for 100 yards, pulled in his third TD with 1:44 left, making the score respectable. Madison had six catches for 70 yards and also rushed for 31.
Ritchey passed for 299 of PLU's 379 total yards. But when the Lutes needed points the most - the fourth quarter - the Wildcats controlled the ball for over 10 minutes. PLU went a combined 0-for-4 on third- and fourth-down plays during the final 15 minutes.
'CAT SCRATCH: Saturday's paid attendance was 2,159. . . Linfield raised its record to 17-8 in NCAA playoff games . . . the Wildcats have advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs for the fifth straight season. . . scoring three rushing TDs against the Lutes to raise their season total to 48, the Wildcats obliterated the team single-season record of 45 set by the 2002 club. . . with 16 rushing TDs, Yoder moved past graduated Wildcats Simon Lamson and Andy Westerberg to No. 4 on Linfield's single-season ladder. . . the Wildcats won their 14th consecutive game over the Lutes. . . Wildcats coach Joseph Smith is a perfect 12-0 in head-to-head battles against the Lutes' Scott Westering.