McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Pacific Lutheran ran out of time.
An-end-of-game drive toward a tying field goal – or perhaps a winning touchdown – ended on a fourth down incompletion as Linfield held off Pacific Lutheran, 27-24, in an opening round game of the NCAA Division III football playoffs on Saturday at Maxwell Field.
With the win, Linfield (10-0) advances to a second round game where it will host North Central (Ill.), a 41-21 winner over Cal Lutheran. For PLU, the season comes to an end with a 7-3 record.
Linfield came into the game as the No. 1 seed in the regional bracket and with lots of NCAA Division III postseason experience. In fact, Linfield as a program had participated in 20 playoff games – hosting 15 of them – since PLU made its last appearance in the postseason in 2001. Linfield won the Northwest Conference title to get in, Pacific Lutheran was the conference runner-up and received an at-large bid.
Undaunted, Pacific Lutheran gave the Wildcats everything they could handle before coming up short.
The final drive started at the PLU 22-yard line with 1:33 remaining, and it began with a Linfield sack of PLU quarterback Dalton Ritchey. Still, the Lutes moved the ball, as they had in a dominating second half offensive performance. A 21-yard pass from Ritchey to Daniel Herr got the ball to the Linfield 41-yard line, but two spikes to stop the clock, a sack and an incompletion ended the game.
The second half belonged to the Lutes offense, which scored 17 points and also gained 246 of their 330 total yards in the final 30 minutes. It also belonged to the PLU defense, which limited Linfield to just 72 second half yards out of their 249 total. Additionally, the defense had three consecutive three-and-outs against Linfield, limiting that team's prolific offense to just 22 plays in the final half, and that provided impetus for the Lutes to get back into the game.
In the early going it was Linfield that got on the board first at 7:13 of the first quarter on Josh Kay's 47-yard field goal just inside the left upright, but the Lutes replied with an impressive drive. Pacific Lutheran mounted an efficient eight-play, 75-yard scoring march with Niko Madison sweeping around the left end for six yards and the touchdown, putting PLU ahead 7-3.
Unfortunately, three second quarter turnovers turned the momentum away from the Lutes and over to the Wildcats.
Starting at their own 9-yard line, the Lutes moved out of the shadow of their own end zone, including a third down conversion on a 17-yard pass from Dalton Ritchey to Kyle Warner. Facing another third down, Ritchey had the yardage gained but was hit and fumbled, with Colin Forman recovering at the PLU 45-yard line. The Wildcats settled for a 42-yard field goal by Josh Kay, cutting PLU's lead to 7-6.
On its next possession, PLU started at its 9-yard line after a penalty on the kickoff. On the first play from scrimmage Ritchey rolled left, was hit and lost the ball, which was recovered by Dom Forrest at the PLU 5-yard line. Two players later, Chad Coburn scored on a four-yard run, putting Linfield on top 13-7.
PLU's next possession resulted in yet another turnover, this an interception by Forrest, the Northwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Linfield took over at the PLU 36-yard line and Coburn capped a short six-play drive with a one-yard run, giving the hosts a 20-7 lead.
The second half started rough for the Lutes offense when Brandon James fumbled following a 9-yard run to the Linfield 41-yard line, but PLU's defense forced a three-and-out to give the ball back to the offense.
That big defensive stop led to Pacific Lutheran's next scoring drive, a seven-play, 80-yard march that ended when Ritchey found Lucas Sontra in the end zone with a 21-yard pass after a nice play fake. Ritchey completed four passes for a total of 69 yards on the drive. With 8:30 left in the third quarter, the Lutes had closed their deficit to 20-14.
For the second straight time, the defense forced a three-and-out for Linfield, and when Daniel Herr returned the punt 20 yards the Lutes had the ball at their own 38-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-six at the Linfield 38-yard line, Ritchey fired a 36-yard bomb to Warner to the Linfield 2-yard line. After three plays and a loss of one yard, Jacob Schrader kicked a 20-yard field goal to make it 20-17 in favor of the Wildcats.
Warner had 12 catches for 205 yards in the game and as a result finished the season with 1,264 receiving yards, establishing a new PLU single-season record and eclipsing the old mark of 1,245 by Al Bessette in 1976.
A pair of turnovers on back-to-back plays early in the fourth quarter had the momentum switching sides quickly. With Linfield driving deep in PLU territory, Connor Cummings forced a fumble and Greg Hibbard recovered at the PLU 5-yard line. Ritchey, looking in the left flat for Warner, was picked off by Ty Robitaille, who went 10 yards for a touchdown that gave Linfield a 27-17 lead with 12:02 left in the game.
Again, Pacific Lutheran had an answer, driving 78 yards on 14 plays and scoring on Ritchey's 13-yard run around the left end. The touchdown came on a fourth-and-one play and featured outstanding blocks by Warner, Herr and offensive tackle Parker Brown.
With the Lutes out of timeouts, Linfield was able to get a first down before having to punt the ball away for one final time. PLU took possession at the 22-yard line with one last chance, but the drive, and the game, ended just inside the Linfield side of midfield.
In the end, the Lutes were unable to overcome five turnovers that led to 24 Linfield points. But they sure went down giving every ounce of effort they had.
Pacific Lutheran piled up 17 first downs and 339 yards of offense to 12 first downs and 249 yards for Linfield. PLU gained 284 of its yards through the air with Ritchey going 22-for-33 with one touchdown and two interceptions. Warner led the Lutes with his 12 catches and 205 yards. Cody Pohren's 23 yards led the PLU rushing game.
The PLU defense limited Linfield to 39 net rushing yards on 26 carries. Quarterback Mickey Inns, the NWC Offensive Player of the Year, was 22-for-35 for 210 yards with one interception and one touchdown. Charlie Poppen had seven catches for 70 yards to lead the 'Cats receivers.
- PLU -