PUYALLUP, Wash. – Freshman John Shaffer ran 32 yards for the winning touchdown with 7:03 remaining and Colin Forman snatched a game-sealing interception with under two minutes to play, lifting third-ranked Linfield to a come-from-behind 31-24 victory over Northwest Conference rival Pacific Lutheran Saturday at jam-packed Sparks Stadium.
Linfield (4-0, 1-0 NWC) twice overcame two-touchdown deficits in the first half and outscored PLU 10-3 in the second half, taking its first critical step toward a fourth-straight NWC titles.
Pacific Lutheran (1-2, 0-1 NWC), once considered Linfield's fiercest Northwest rival, lost to the Wildcats for the 11th consecutive time but had their best shot in recent seasons at knocking off the perennial champions.
Shaffer, a redshirt freshman from Aloha, Ore., wove his way through the PLU defense for 83 yards while backfield mate Stephen Nasca picked up 67 more. The two tailbacks collectively filled the void created by the loss all-star Josh Hill, sidelined for the remainder of the season with an injury. Hill had been the Wildcats' workhorse back, running for at least 100 yards in each of the team's first three games.
The Linfield defense, playing without injured all-star Tyler Steele, weathered an early storm to finish with a season-high seven sacks, including two from end Michael MacClanathan. Counting lost yards for sacks, the 'Cats held the Lutes to 19 net yards rushing. Forman totaled a team-high six tackles and his interception of a Dalton Ritchey pass at midfield touched off a wild celebration on the Wildcats sideline.
Taking full advantage of its opportunities, PLU twice opened up 14-point leads in the first half only to watch Linfield rally for a 21-all tie by intermission. PLU stuck quickly to open the contest, needing just four plays to reach the end zone, as Kellen Westering took a Ritchey pass, slipped a tackle on the sideline then raced 71 yards for a touchdown with the game less than three minutes old.
Linfield looked shaky at best on its opening drive, as quarterback Mickey Inns was nearly intercepted on first down and then picked off by Greg Hibbard on third down, who returned the ball 28 yards to the Linfield 17-yard line. Dalton hooked up with Kyle Warner four plays later for a 6-yard scoring strike and the Lutes led 14-0 following Nick Kaylor's extra point.
Linfield's next drive produced just 11 yards but a 50-yard punt by Josh Repp pinned the Lutes at their own 14. A bad exchange caused Ritchey to fumble and end KeAlii Poomaihealani recovered at the PLU 6. Inns then guided the Wildcats into the end zone, passing 3 yards to tight end Westly Meng with 4:01 left in the opening quarter.
PLU pushed its lead back to 14 points, scoring on a 32-yard catch-and-run by Westering. Linfield answered back, marching 67 yards in 12 plays to paydirt. Inns spotted Zach Young at the PLU 5, and Young took the ball the rest of the way to close the gap to 21-14.
Inns threw for his third touchdown of the half three minutes later, hitting Aaron Hire at the goal line to knot the game at 21.
The Lutes went three-and-out on their next drive and the Wildcats took over at their own 42. Linfield appeared to take the lead when Josh Kay split the uprights from 42 yards out, but Linfield was whistled for an illegal kicking penalty. Kay's subsequent attempt from 47 yards was wide right and the game remained deadlocked.
Linfield took its first lead of the game on the opening drive of the third quarter, highlighted by a 22-yard bomb to Lucas Jepson down the right sideline. Inns moved the 'Cats to the PLU 28 where Kay hit a 45-yard field goal.
PLU matched Linfield's points early in the fourth quarter as Kaylor booted a 37-yarder to knot the score at 24. The Wildcats responded with two key rushes by Nasca that moved the ball into PLU territory, setting up Shaffer's winding 32-yard run that took most of the air out of the Lutes' sails.
Needing a touchdown to tie, PLU continued to apply pressure to the Linfield defense, moving to the Linfield 49 but the Lutes failed to convert a 4th-and-1 play with just over four minutes to go. Halfback Niko Madison was stuffed at the line for a 1-yard loss by Forman.
Inns finished 17-of-31 for 208 yards and three touchdowns, but the senior pivot was sacked three times and threw two interceptions.
Nine different Wildcats caught passes in the game, including four from David Sigler and three by Poppen.
Dalton passed for 296 yards in a losing cause, completing 18-of-33. Westering, son of PLU coach Scott Westering, caught five passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
Lutes linebacker Jordan Patterson piled up a game-high 11 tackles. Ben Kaestner had eight stops, including a sack.
'CAT SCRATCH: Saturday's estimated attendance was 3,500. . . Nasca, a senior from nearby Sammamish, made his first career start in place of Hill. . . the Wildcats extended their NWC winning streak to 21 games while spoiling the Lutes' Homecoming . . . Inns was 2-for-8 passing in the first quarter, including two interceptions. . . PLU won the turnover battle, 3-2, and had five fewer penalties. . . the Wildcats outgained the Lutes 341-315. . . with its 11th straight series win over PLU, Linfield leads the all-time ledger with 37 wins, 21 losses, and four ties.
AHEAD: Linfield enjoys its second open date on the schedule this coming Saturday before returning to action Oct. 13 at home against Whitworth. Kickoff for the annual Homecoming game is 1 p.m.