WHITEWATER, Wis. – Squaring off in a heavyweight battle of elite NCAA Division III unbeatens, fifth-ranked UW-Whitewater rallied from a 17-0 deficit with 28 unanswered points, knocking off No. 2 Linfield 28-17 in the West Region final of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday afternoon at frigid Perkins Stadium.
Jake Kumerow scored three touchdowns in the game's final 2½ quarters, all on medium-range passes from Matt Behrendt.
Linfield (11-1) saw its climb toward a second NCAA championship and fifth national title overall come to an end. UW-Whitewater (13-0) advances to play Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) in next week's semifinals. The Crusaders won 45-23 over St. John Fisher (N.Y) in another quarterfinal game on Saturday.
After taking a 17-0 lead, the UWW defense asserted itself, sacking Linfield quarterback Josh Yoder seven times in the second half and holding the Wildcats to 89 yards over the final 30 minutes.
Early momentum belonged to the Wildcats. Linfield scored on its opening possession, moving easily down the field in five plays and covering 66 yards. A 39-yard hookup from Yoder to Evan Peterson gave the Wildcats a first-and-goal opportunity at the UWW 3. Yoder scooted the rest of the way on the next play for the game's first score.
The ensuing kickoff provided Linfield another golden opportunity but the 'Cats failed to cash in. Marcus McLin lost the kickoff in the bright sun and Chad Coburn recovered at the UWW 21. The Wildcats advanced to the 1 in six plays, but on fourth down Coburn bobbled the snap from the Wildcat formation and Linfield turned the ball over on downs.
After an exchange of punts, Linfield pushed inside the red zone once more. A 22-yard field goal by Josh Repp with 1:48 left in the first quarter added to the Wildcats' lead.
Linfield's defense forced a punt, and the 'Cats took over at their own 14-yard line. Yoder and the Wildcats needed five plays to score again with Peterson pulling in a 60-yard bomb down the right sideline. Repp's extra point pushed the Linfield advantage to 17-0 with 12:55 remaining before halftime.
Undaunted, the Warhawks scored two touchdowns within a seven-minute span. Behrendt threw 19 yards to Tyler Huber and then 12 yards to Kumerow, cutting the Linfield lead to three.
With Yoder completing 17 of 19 first-half passes, the Wildcats outgained the Warhawks 309-193 through the opening two quarters. Peterson had four catches for 145 yards at the break.
When play resumed, the Warhawks moved quickly to the Linfield 12 but Eric Kindler missed a 29-yard field goal wide left.
Linfield had a chance to pad its lead early in the third quarter, reaching the Warhawks' 20, but Yoder fumbled and Kyle Wismer recovered. Behrendt passed 25 yards to Kumerow for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:48 left in the third quarter. The duo hooked up again with 12:15 to go, this time from 10 yards away, completing a seven-play, 61-yard drive.
The Wildcats weren't out of it yet. Yoder and the 'Cats pushed their way to the UWW 37 before the drive stalled. A pair of incompletions were followed by back-to-back sacks by Wismer and Mykaell Bratchett with 5:15 to play sent the Linfield offense to the sideline. With the Warhawks defense bearing down, the Wildcats never got past its own 42 the rest of the way.
Behrendt completed 26 of 36 for 275 yards and four touchdowns. Kumerow caught seven passes for 149 yards, often using his considerable advantage in height to pull in passes over the outstretched arms of Linfield defenders.
Yoder ended the day 28 of 37 passing for 374 yards but he was sacked eight times. Held to two catches in the second half, Peterson finished with six receptions for 163 yards. Brian Balsiger pulled in 11 passes for 136 yards.
Linfield rushed for a net 24 yards, losing 64 yards on sacks. The Wildcats outgained the Warhawks 398-378 but lost the turnover battle, tossing one interception and twice fumbling the ball away, all in the second half. The Warhawks lost just one fumble on the afternoon.
Kyle Wright and Dominique Forrest each recorded eight tackles to lead Linfield's defensive charge.
Ryan Cortez was credited with a game-high nine tackles for the Warhawks. John Flood came away with two sacks.
'CAT SCRATCH: Temperature at kickoff was 9 degrees with a 6 mph wind. . . the Wildcats played the game minus leading rusher Josh Hill, who did not travel due to an injury suffered during the Hampen-Sydney game. . . around 50 Linfield parents and fans braved the bitter cold to cheer on the Wildcats from the visiting stands. . .the Warhawks improved to 8-0 in NCAA quarterfinal games. . . for all its postseason success, Linfield remained winless against UW-Whitewater in three attempts . . . Saturday's defeat marked the end of the line for one of largest and most successful senior classes in Linfield history. . . spanning its four seasons, the graduating Class of 2014 prevailed in 41 of 46 contests, won four Northwest Conference championships and six NCAA playoff games. . . Linfield concluded its season with just one loss for the third straight year. . . as a team, the Wildcats set single-season records for rushing touchdowns (50), forced fumbles (18), quarterback hurries (16), and pass breakups (53).