McMINNVILLE, Ore. – With its offense flagging and its conference rival driving for the winning score, third-ranked Linfield reached down deep to pull out a thrilling 27-24 victory over No. 20 Pacific Lutheran in a NCAA Division III first-round playoff game Saturday at rainy Maxwell Field.
Linfield (9-0), the Northwest Conference champion, advances to play North Central (Ill.) Nov. 24 at a site to be announced on Sunday. Though Linfield does expect to host a second-round game, official pairings won't be confirmed by the NCAA until Sunday. Kickoff will be noon local time.
Pacific Lutheran (7-3) came up just a bit short in its best season in many years. All three of the Lutes' losses came against playoff-qualifying teams, two were by the Wildcats.
The Lutes outgained the Wildcats in total yards, 339-249, had more first downs, 17-12, and controlled the ball for 33 of the game's 60 minutes. But five turnovers proved costly, three of which were subsequently and suddenly turned into touchdowns on the first or second play.
Mickey Inns passed for 210 yards but was held without a touchdown pass for the first time this season. Inns completed 22 of 35 attempts but suffered his first interception since the third week of the season – a 31-24 road victory over PLU.
The Wildcats had to overcome a brilliant performance by the Lutes' 6-foot-3 receiver Kyle Warner, who riddled the Linfield secondary for 12 catches and 205 yards. Warner was held without a touchdown on a day when PLU needed it most.
Linfield drew first blood when Josh Kay capped a 10-play drive with a 47-yard field goal at 7:13 of the first quarter.
PLU responded with its own scoring drive on the ensuing possession, moving 75 yards in eight plays to the end zone. Halfback Niko Madison swept 6 yards around left end as the Lutes took a 7-3 lead.
Linfield moved inside the red zone to the PLU 12-yard line but Inns was sacked by Doug Sullivan on third down and the Wildcats settled for a 42-yard field goal from Kay.
Linfield capitalized on a PLU miscue moments later. On the first play following the kickoff, Lutes quarterback Dalton Ritchey was stripped of the ball and Dominique Forrest recovered at the PLU 9. Two plays later, Chad Coburn ran straight ahead with the ball from the Wildcat formation, scooting 4 yards into the end zone. After Kay's extra point, Linfield led 13-7 with 6:13 left in the first quarter.
Forrest came up big once more, snagging a Richey pass at the PLU 36 to set up Linfield's next touchdown. Coburn again wriggled his way to paydirt from the four-back formation, scoring on a 1-yard run six plays later. The 'Cats led 20-7 with 3:22 left in the quarter.
The Lutes forced a turnover of their own, jarring the ball losse from tailback John Shaffer, but PLU's drive stalled when freshman tackle Marq Randall sacked Ritchey on a third-and-long play from the 35.
With steady rain falling throughout, both defenses dominated the first half as the team combined for five turnovers, three by the Lutes. Linfield outgained PLU 161-93 during the first two quarters.
PLU kept the pressure on the third quarter, driving 80 yards in seven plays after a punt to pull within 20-14. Ritchey passed 21 yards to Lucas Sontra with 8:30 left in the period. The Lutes put together another long drive following a punt, netting a 20-yard field goal from Jacob Schrader with 1:35 left in the third quarter. The Lutes saw their chance to take the lead thwarted when Ritchey's pass to Kellen Westering in the corner of the end zone was batted away by Colin Forman.
Inns and the Wildcats moved to the PLU 3, but Evan Peterson fumbled as he fought for extra yardage, momentarily taking the wind out of Linfield's sails. But on the first play following, Ritchey was picked off in open space by linebacker Tyler Robitaille, who waltzed 10 yards into the end zone and putting the hosts back in front by 10, 27-17.
The Lutes refused to fade, convert two fourth down plays, plus three third-down plays, on the way to Ritchey's 13-yard keeper around right end that trimmed the margin the 27-24.
PLU got the ball back at its own 22 with 1:33 left but had already expened all of their time outs. Ritchey was sacked on first down by Mike Maierhofer and on second down, the Wildcats were penalized 15 yards for a facemask after stopping Warner short of the first down. A 21-yard pass over the middle to Daniel Herr pushed the Lutes into Linfield territory. With the crowd on the edge of its seats, Ritchey was sacked by Bryan Dundas on the next play and on fourth and 16 from the 47, Ritchey threw incomplete, ending any remaining hope of a PLU upset.
Ritchey completed 22 of 33 passes for 284 yards but the sophomore was sacked six times on the day with Dundas and Maierhofer chalking up two each.
Forrest piled up a game-high 10 tackles to go with his interception and fumble return. Forman had seven tackles as well as a pair of fumble recoveries and a key pass breakup in the end zone. Robitaille was credited with six tackles along with his game-changing interception return for a touchdown.
'CAT SCRATCH: Saturday's paid attendance was 1,804. . . since 2009, the Wildcats are 9-0 in games played at Maxwell Field during the month of November. . . Inns suffered his first interception in seven games on the Wildcats' opening drive. . . the Lutes turned the ball over on the first or second play of drives four times. . . Linfield ran its win streak over PLU to 12 games. . . Linfield punter Josh Repp averaged 45 yards on five punts, including a 49-yarder that was downed at the PLU 9. . . Linfield is now 15-7 all-time in the NCAA playoffs and has reached the second round of the postseason tournament for the fourth straight year.