Wildcats pounce on Cardinals, advance with 30-14 win
McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Outgained but not outplayed, third-ranked Linfield turned away No. 14 North Central time and again, producing seven turnovers on the way to a 30-14 victory in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday at Maxwell Field.
Cornerback Michael Link intercepted a pair of passes inside Linfield territory, Dominique Forrest returned another pass 73 yards for a touchdown, and the Wildcats withstood a 192-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance by North Central's Nick Kukuc.
Linfield (11-0), representing the Northwest Conference, advances to a Dec. 1 quarterfinal matchup against Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a 37-14 winner over Bethel. Official quarterfinal host sites will be confirmed and announced Sunday by the NCAA. Kickoff will be at noon local time.
North Central (9-3), tri-champion of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, saw its season come to a close. While reaching the national quarterfinals for the fifth time in 10 seasons, Linfield extended its home winning streak to 25 games.
Wildcats quarterback Mickey Inns passed for 305 yards and two scores, and though he completed 24 of 39 throws, the senior was sacked four times by a Cardinals defense that surrendered just 331 total yards. Lucas Jepson caught a game-high eight passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.
The Cardinals appeared to take a 3-0 lead with just over two minutes left in the first quarter, but the NCC bench called timeout just as the ball was about to leave kicker Nick Dace's foot. As play resumed, Dace's 37-yard attempt was wide left and the game remained scoreless.
Linfield fed off the early momentum, marching 80 yards in nine plays for the game's first points. Inns hit Charlie Poppen for a 17-yard strike, and Josh Kay booted the extra point, the Wildcats led 7-0 with 14:22 left in the second quarter.
Linfield's defense accounted for the next score on the Cardinals' ensuing possession. On fourth-and-2 from the Linfield 31, NCC quarterback Spencer Stanek was intercepted by Forrest, who returned the errant throw 73 yards for a touchdown.
The Cardinals' turnover woes were just beginning. Michael MacClanathan recovered a bad snap at the NCC 39, giving the Wildcats their best starting field position of the half. When the drive stalled, Kay trotted out for a 44-yard field goal that pushed Linfield out in front 17-0.
North Central advanced the ball to the Linfield 3, aided by a 43-yard bomb down the right sideline to Nick Kukuc, but Stanek fumbled a handoff and Brynnan Hyland recovered at the 6.
Kukuc had 105 yards by intermission and the Cardinals controlled the ball for nearly 20 minutes of the first half. NCC outgained Linfield 208-152 during the opening two periods, but it was the Wildcats who made the most of their opportunities.
Midway through the third quarter, Brandon Funk intercepted Stanek at the Linfield 36 and two plays later, Inns stepped away from pressure in the pocket and found Jepson streaking down sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
Stanek committed NCC's fifth turnover of the afternoon on the ensuing drive and the Wildcats again turned the miscue into points. An eight-play, 53-yard drive was capped off by Chad Coburn's 4-yard weave into the end zone. Kay's extra point was blocked but it mattered little as the 'Cats enjoyed a 30-0 advantage over the visitors from Illinois.
Kukuc finally broke free with 2:32 to go in the third quarter, avoiding two tackles on the way to a 32-yard touchdown romp. Kukuc again found his way into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter, pounding 15 yards for the score to cut the margin to 30-14.
The Cardinals kept the pressure on in the late going. A personal foul penalty after Linfield had stopped the Cardinals on third down at midfield kept a drive alive. Facing on third-and-10 from the Linfield 29, Stanek's deep pass into the end zone was batted away by Link. A fourth-down pass was picked off by Link at the Linfield 12, silencing a 12-play drive.
NCC outgained Linfield 416-331 for the game, including a whopping 181-26 disparity in the rushing column. But seven turnovers, including five interceptions by Stanek, proved to be the Cardinals' undoing.
Forrest led all tacklers with 12 stops, including six unassisted. Kyle Wright contributed seven tackles, two of which were for loss. Link produced six tackles and three pass breakups to go with his two interceptions. Linebacker Quinn Haas paced the North Central defense with 10 tackles, including two sacks and a fumble recovery.
'CAT SCRATCH: Saturday's paid attendance was 1,304. . . the Wildcats are 14-3 at home in the playoffs since becoming full-fledged members of the NCAA. . . Linfield's last home loss came in the next-to-last game of the 2008 season, a 17-9 nonconference defeat to Western Oregon. . . Wildcats coach Joseph Smith raised his career record to 60-13, including 42-4 over the last four seasons. . . Inns became only the fifth Linfield quarterback to surpass 3,000 passing yards in a season and 6,000 yards for his career. . . he now stands at 3,041 passing yards for the season and 6,035 for his career.