McMINNVILLE, Ore. – No. 2 Linfield's Michael Metter kicked a 32-yard field goal on the game's final play to lift the Wildcats to a 38-35 win over No. 13 Mary Hardin-Baylor in the NCAA Division III football quarterfinals on Saturday afternoon at Maxwell Field. The Wildcats rallied after falling behind 21-0 just over seven minutes into the game.
Linfield (12-0), in the national semifinals for the second straight season and the 14th time in school history, will play No. 4 St. Thomas (Minn.) next Saturday. The game site and time are expected to be finalized Sunday by the NCAA. St. Thomas defeated Wabash 38-7 in another quarterfinal Saturday.
UMHB (11-2) remains winless in four games against Linfield, all in the national playoffs. The Wildcats also ended the Crusaders' season a year ago in the second round.
Wildcats quarterback Tom Knecht passed for 492 yards and five touchdowns, completing 38 of 54 passes while playing in place of injured starter Sam Riddle. Knecht logged the fourth-highest passing yardage total in Linfield history and his 38 completions matched the second-highest figure ever by a Wildcat.
Knecht had stepped in at halftime of last week's second-round win over Cortland State, guiding Linfield to four second-half scores as the Wildcats pulled away for a 38-22 win.
Johnny Carroll caught 10 of Knecht's passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, Brian Balsiger had seven catches for 150 yards and two scores and running back Spencer Payne had nine catches for 58 yards.
"I think it was just one of those in-the-zone days," Carroll said. "We knew the whole week of preparation was good and we watched a lot of film, watched the coverages and just figured out what we thought we were going to do in certain tendencies, and we executed.
"We dug ourselves a little hole early, but I think that's a little bit of what helped. We had to get the ball in the air and the receivers stepped up today."
All-America defensive end Alex Hoff tied Linfield's career sack record, getting his 38th early in the third quarter, as the Wildcats recorded four sacks and eight tackles for lost yardage. Linebacker Jake Reimer led Linfield with nine tackles.
UMHB was led by quarterback Zach Anderson, who completed 10 of 19 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown, and Duane Thompson, who rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Blake Jackson, who alternated at quarterback with Anderson, ran for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns and DeNerian Thomas had four catches for 112 yards and a touchdown for the Crusaders.
"They were really good – that was an unbelievable football team," Linfield head coach Joseph Smith said. "That's one of the best D-lines we've seen; we had a really hard time with them and that certainly was a big deal early in the game."
Metter's game-winning field goal ended an afternoon filled with big plays and momentum swings. The teams combined for 934 yards of total offense, 14 offensive plays of 20 or more yards, six turnovers and a 17 of 29 mark on third-down conversions. After the initial 21-point deficit, Linfield twice got back within seven points only to see the Crusaders respond with a touchdown.
"Our team is built for games such as this," Smith said. "Our program is based on values and character, and a game like this is when it really shows. You see what you're made of, whether you can ignore the scoreboard and ignore the negative and instead focus on the positive, and keep that belief going."
At the end of the day, two turnovers in the last 5½ minutes gave each team a chance to claim the win.
With the game tied at 35 with 5:18 remaining, Mary Hardin-Baylor had taken over at the Linfield 23-yard line on an interception and had a chance for the go-ahead score. But on third-and-four from the 17, the shotgun snap went far over the head of UMHB quarterback Blake Jackson and rolled all the way to midfield, where Hoff recovered at the UMHB 48.
"I saw (the snap) was high," Hoff said. "And it's a dead sprint to the ball. It was a little lucky bounce when he went to get on it. It popped out to my side … it was just a dead sprint and pray for the best, and it ended up falling our way, which is huge."
Linfield moved 33 yards in six plays, including a third-and-13 completion on which Carroll made a diving catch at the first-down marker at the Crusader 37. Two plays later, Eric Iginoba made a 13-yard catch to the 21, then Payne carried up the middle to the 15.
The Wildcats let the clock run down to 0:03 before calling timeout and setting up for the field goal. Mary Hardin-Baylor called its final two timeouts in an attempt to ice Metter, but when the play finally went off he coolly drilled the ball between the uprights to start Linfield's celebration.
"I just knew my team had my back," Metter said. "I had all the confidence in the world that we were going to win the game. I had total faith in my holder (Carroll) and snapper (Hoff) and my offensive line to get it done.
"All three phases had been doing their part and it was my time to play my role and help us accomplish our goal."
After its slow start, Linfield still trailed 28-14 at the half. It then scored 21 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters to go up 35-28 with just under seven minutes left in the game.
"Obviously we dug ourselves a little bit of a whole, but I never lost faith in my teammates," Knecht said. "I know we have a good defense and great special teams that will help the offense get things going. I never really changed the mindset … just believe in each other, execute the game plan, and good things will happen."
That 21-point run started when Carroll caught a 1-yard fade pattern on the right side, capping a 98-yard drive that took eight plays. That march included a 37-yard strike to Balsiger on a third-and-10 play. Balsiger outfought a Crusader for the ball at the 1 to set up the score.
The Wildcats tied the game 28-28 after another bad UMHB snap and Hoff fumble recovery set Linfield up at the 50. Linfield scored in seven plays, Knecht finding Balsiger in the right corner of the end zone for 13 yars and the score on the final play of the third quarter.
Mary Hardin-Baylor then drove to the Linfield 27 but a third-down sack by defensive end Marcus McGovern pushed the ball back to the 35 and the Crusaders elected to punt.
Getting the ball at its own 19, Linfield marched 81 yards in 11 plays and took its first lead of the day at 35-28 when Balsiger hauled in that 27-yard pass from Knecht. The drive included a trio of third-down conversions, including a third-and-14 from the UMHB 41 when running back Payne took a shovel pass, got to the left side and hurdle a Crusader at the first-down marker.
With things finally going Linfield's way, Mary Hardin-Baylor reversed the game with an 85-yard touchdown pass from Anderson to Thomas, who took a pass over the middle, cut to the left sideline and outraced the 'Cat defense to the end zone to make it 35-all with 5:50 to play.
That set up the fantastic finish for Linfield, made even more dramatic by the fact the Wildcats had fallen behind so far, so fast.
UMHB took the opening kickoff and went 75 yards in six plays, scoring on Thompson's 16-yard run with 12:48 to go in the opening quarter.
Next, the first of Knecht's three interceptions on the day set the Crusaders up at the Linfield 30-yard line. On the third play of the drive, Jackson scooted 4 yards through the left side for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 10:56 to go in the first period.
A bad snap and short punt on the Wildcats' next possession gave the Crusaders the ball at the Linfield 48. Back-to-back 23-yard runs by Jackson and Thompson took the ball into the end zone and Linfield trailed 21-0 with 7:51 still to go in the opening quarter.
But, in a first quarter that would take nearly an hour to play, the Wildcats scored twice by the end of the period to make it 21-14.
First was a 90-yard, nine-play drive that ended with Carroll hauling in a 36-yard pass from Knecht with 4:23 to go in the period. UMHB fumbled a snap on the first play of its ensuing possession and McGovern recovered at the Crusader 29; three plays later, Knecht found Zach Kuzens in the middle of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown pass and it was 21-14 with 3:13 still to go in the quarter.
Mary Hardin-Baylor threatened to extend its lead with a 12-play, 65-yard drive but Jacob O'Neill's 40-yard field goal attempt was wide left early in the second quarter. Linfield moved the ball to midfield but Knecht's second interception was returned by UMHB defensive end Jon Isom to the Wildcat 3, and Anderson scored from there to push the lead back to 28-14 with 11:31 to go in the second quarter.