McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Brynnan Hyland piled up three sacks, Linfield forced two turnovers and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, and the third-ranked Wildcats pounded Northwest Conference challenger Willamette 45-10 Saturday at rain-swept Maxwell Field.
Tied 10-10 at intermission, the Wildcats erupted for three touchdowns in a two-minute, 36-second span of the third quarter to blow the game wide open.
With its 24th straight conference victory, Linfield cleared what appeared to be the last major hurdle standing in its path toward a fourth consecutive NWC championship. The Wildcats (7-0, 4-0 NWC) close the regular season with games against Puget Sound and Pacific whose combined record stands at 3-11.
Willamette (6-2, 2-2 NWC) suffered its second consecutive defeat after a 6-0 start. The Bearcats were held to 108 total yards, including 12 rushing.
Receivers Charlie Poppen and Lucas Jepson riddled the WU secondary with five catches apiece. Linfield quarterbacks Mickey Inns and Josh Yoder combined for 260 yards and three touchdowns through the air plus one rushing touchdown.
With seven tackles from monsterback Kyle Wright, and six more from Hyland, the Wildcats harassed the Bearcats into their worst offensive showing of the season. Quarterback Josh Dean, who was completing 68 percent of his passes, struggled through a 13-for-30 performance. He sacked seven times, coughed up two interceptions and the WU offense was limited to a spartan 108 yards. The Bearcats were averaging a NWC-best 544 yards.
The game began as a defensive struggle before Linfield capped an eight-play, 42-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge by Yoder with 6:45 left in the first quarter.
The Bearcats cashed in a golden opportunity early in the second quarter when Cody Pastorino blocked a punt by Josh Repp. The ball was spotted at the Linfield 15-yard line and three plays later, quarterback Josh Dean raced 14 yards untouched into end zone, squaring the game at 7.
Another Linfield miscue gave Willamette great field position and resulted in the Bearcats' only lead of the game. Cullen Carroll jarred the ball loose from Wildcats tailback John Shaffer and Dominic David recovered at the Linfield 11. The drive went nowhere and the Bearcats were forced to settle for Kyle Derby's 28-yard field goal.
The Wildcats answered, marching six plays into Bearcats territory and tying the game on a 35-yard field goal from Josh Kay that cleared the cross bar by mere inches.
Linfield outgained Willamette 132-50 through the first two quarters as the Bearcats managed just one yard rushing on 19 carries.
When play resumed, the Wildcats failed to capitalize on a first-and-goal from the WU 1. Successive penalties for a false start and personal foul pushed the ball back to the 17, and on fourth down, Kay's 34-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Following a short punt, Linfield moved 30 yards in six plays, scoring the go-ahead points when Deidre Wiersma collared a 5-yard pass from Inns. Kay's extra point made it 17-10 in favor of the Wildcats with 8:19 left in the third quarter.
Linfield's special teams made their presence felt moments later. The Bearcats offense again spun its wheels and Taylor Wyman's punt was blocked by Colin Forman, who chased the bouncing ball into the endzone for six more quick points.
It continued to get worse for Willamette. Kyle Wright intercepted Dean at the 38 on Willamette's next drive. Inns went deep on the ensuing play, hitting Charlie Poppen in stride in the end zone for a 31-10 Linfield advantage.
Kay converted what looked like a 23-yard field goal in the opening moments of the fourth quarter, but the Bearcats were whistled for roughing the kicker. After taking the points off the scoreboard, the Wildcats resumed their drive from the WU 3 where Inns found Poppen in the corner of the end zone and the outcome was never in doubt after that.
Hyland, a lanky defensive end, finished with three sacks for 22 yards in losses. Linebacker Dominique Forrest had four solo tackles to go along with an interception.
Inns completed 17 of 31 attempts for 229 yards and three TDs without an interception. Shaffer finished with 51 yards rushing on 23 attempts.
Dean was handcuffed to just 96 yards through the air, and though he rushed for one touchdown, finished with minus-22 yards rushing on 12 carries.
WU defensive end Ben Lyons totaled a game-high 11 tackles. Linebacker Wes Wenzel added seven stops.
'CAT SCRATCH: Saturday's paid attendance was 2,247. . . Linfield has won 22 straight home games. . . Willamette ran 16 plays in the first quarter yet netted just seven yards. . . the game was played in a steady downpour. . . Dean came into the game ranking third in NCAA Division III in passing yards per game (367.0). . . five of the Bearcats' 17 drives ended with negative yardage. . . Linfield defeated Willamette for the fourth straight year and 34th time in the previous 41 meetings. . . Repp averaged 35.2 yards per punt, including a 50-yard effort in the first half and two boots that were downed inside the Bearcats' 20. . . Forman led Linfield with 95 all-purpose yards, including 69 on kickoffs. . . Willamette converted just 4 of 19 third-down plays. . . Linfield controlled the ball for 36 of the game's 60 minutes while outgaining Willamette 371-108.
AHEAD: Linfield heads north to Tacoma, Wash., to face winless Puget Sound at Baker Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.