McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Scoring 28 unanswered points to avoid a major upset, second-ranked Linfield fought off opportunistic Hampden-Sydney 31-21 to prevail in a thrilling second-round NCAA Division III playoff clash Saturday at chilly Maxwell Field.
Linfield (11-0) advances to a quarterfinal matchup against fellow unbeaten Wisconsin-Whitewater (12-0), a 33-3 winner Saturday over Franklin (Ind.). The game site, expected to be in Whitewater, Wis., will be confirmed Sunday by the NCAA.
Like a good war film, Saturday's back-and-forth battle featured drama, intrigue and more than a few casualties for both sides.
Unranked Hampden-Sydney, champion of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time in program history. And facing the playoff-seasoned Wildcats, the Tigers felt firmly in control throughout the first half before Linfield's edge in experience keyed a reversal of fortune in the late going.
Linebacker Dominique Forrest was the difference maker for Linfield. The senior All-American piled up a game-high 12 tackles, a sack, forced two fumbles and recovered his own stripped ball in the end zone with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter to all but seal the victory for the favored Wildcats.
Forrest's heroics overshadowed a brilliant 387-yard passing performance from Nash Nance, the one-time University of Tennessee recruit who threw for two scores and ran for another with little resistence, all during the game's initial 20 minutes.
With Nance at the controls the Tigers drew first blood, marching 78 yards in eight plays after the opening kickoff. Halfback Chris Shembo was on the receiving end of a 3-yard shovel pass from Nance that gave H-SC a quick 7-0 lead.
Linfield's initial drive went 28 yards before stalling and the Wildcats were forced to punt. Nance followed with a 70-yard touchdown bomb to Holton Walker and suddenly, the Wildcats were facing a 14-point deficit.
Linfield drove to the H-SC 23-yard line on its next possession, but the H-SC defense held and the 'Cats settled for a 40-yard field goal by Josh Repp that trimmed the margin to 14-3 with 1:49 left in the first quarter.
Facing third-and-1 at the Wildcats' 41, Nance was stopped cold for no gain and on fourth down, he threw incomplete, turning the ball over on downs. Needing to get some offense generated quickly, Linfield quarterback Josh Yoder passed 21 yards to Colin Nelson and an unsportsmanlike conduct on Hampden-Sydney put the ball at the Tigers 23. Yoder took a shot at the end zone but was picked off at the goal line by Sidney Henry, squashing a prime scoring opportunity for the 'Cats.
Starting from his own 1, Nance moved the Tigers down the field for yet another TD, passing first to Walker for a 42-yard gain and capping the drive himself with a 1-yard sneak. The extra point by Paul Boydoh made it 21-3 in favor of the visitors from Virginia with 9:43 left in the half.
Yoder and the Wildcats continued to fight, driving 72 yards for a major score with 5:51 left in the second quarter. Charlie Poppen pulled in a 33-yard pass from Yoder down to the H-SC 3 and Josh Hill plowed over for the first of his two short touchdown runs, bringing Linfield to within 11 points.
Linfield continued to misfire offensively in the first half, even when chances presented themselves. Moments after scoring, Kyle Wright picked off Nance and returned the ball to the H-SC 45. But again, Yoder's lofting pass found its way into Henry's hands in the end zone, once more taking wind out of the Wildcats' sail.
Hampden-Sydney outgained Linfield 194-78 during the opening quarter and 329-195 for the half. Nance accumulated 303 of his 384 passing yards before the break, with four of his 19 completions going to Walker, Division III's receptions leader.
Yoder, the Northwest Conference's Offensive Player of the Year, was a subpar 9-for-21 for 140 yards at the half, including two costly interceptions.
Midway through the third quarter, the Wildcats snatched momentum from the Tigers. Spencer Payne returned a punt 39 yards up the right sideline to the H-SC 32, benefiting from three crushing blocks along the way. Linfield advanced to the 15 before Hill, running out of the Wildcat formation, was halted short of a first down on fourth-and-1. Wildcats rover Mike Nardoni recovered a Joey Kernan fumble at the 32 and six plays later, Hill clawed his way across the goal line. Repp's extra point pulled the host to within 21-17.
Hampden-Sydney, known for its gambling style of play calling, attempted a pass out of punt formation from its own 27. Nance's toss hit the turf incomplete and the Wildcats took over on downs. Riding a groundswell of home-field energy, Hill tossed the ball two yards to tight end Westly Meng for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Wildcats led for the first time, 24-21.
Linfield's defense corralled Hampden-Sydney once more, giving the Wildcats the ball back with 8:25 to play. From the Tigers 27, Yoder suffered his third interception, this one to Zach Morgan at the 1.
Through all of its miscues, Linfield continued to cling to a 24-21 lead, bouyed by a defense that slowly, yet surely, asserted its influence on the game.
As if on cue, Forrest delivered the game-changing play. Nance dropped back to pass in his own end zone where a furious pass rush enabled Forrest to jar the ball loose. The senior dropped on the bouncing ball for the clinching touchdown, putting Linfield in front 31-21 with 6:18 to play.
Linfield steadily tightened the clamps on Hampden-Sydney in the fourth quarter, piling up three sacks. Nance, who began the game with 11 completions in his first 15 throws, went 5-for-11 for 33 yards in the final 15 minutes. The Tigers were 0-for-4 on third down in the final period.
Walker, who looked every bit like an All-American in the first half with 137 receiving yards, was a non-factor in the second half, catching four passes for 27 yards.
Hampden-Sydney outgained Linfield 415-375 for the game, though the Wildcats did limit the Tigers' running game to 27 net yards on 20 attempts.
Yoder ended the day 17-for-35 for 243 yards, but the senior was sacked three times and served up a career-high three interceptions, all inside the H-SC 2-yard line. Hill was the game's leading rusher with 55 yards and two touchdowns. Tavon Willis added another 42 yards on seven carries.
'CAT SCRATCH: The Wildcats are 14-0 at home in the month of November, a streak that spans six seasons. . . the Tigers came into the game averaging 35.5 points and 447 yards per game…the Wildcats entered the game leading Division III in scoring at 53.7 points per game. . . Nance completed passes to 11 different receivers. . . Linfield last faced Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 2009 NCAA semifinals.