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UW-Oshkosh makes incredible comeback at Linfield

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McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Nathan Smith blocked a potential game-winning field goal and Caleb Voss scored the winning points in overtime to propel fifth-ranked Wisconsin-Oshkosh past No. 3 Linfield in the regional finals of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday at Maxwell Field.

UW-Oshkosh's Andrew Thompson recovered a fumble moments later to seal the upset of the perennial playoff contending Wildcats, who saw their 25-game home winning streak come to an end. 

Extending its nation-leading 15-game win streak, UW-Oshkosh advanced to face St. Thomas, a 47-7 winner over Hobart Saturday, Dec. 8, in the national semifinals.

Titans quarterback Nate Wara shrugged off four sacks to complete 23 of 30 passes for 237 yards and one touchdown, including the game-winning 21-yard toss to Voss on the second play of overtime. He also ran for two scores, both in the fourth quarter.

Wildcats QB Mickey Inns posted similar passing stats to Wara's. Inns completed 20 of 33 for 247 yards and one touchdown, but he was sacked twice and threw two interceptions, both in the second half.

The battle of unbeaten teams lived up to its billing as the two conference champions slugged it out for 60 minutes and into overtime. Only 18 yards and two first downs separated the two teams statistically.

After the Titans went three-and-out to begin the game, Inns passed 41 yards to Charlie Poppen to the UWO 1-yard line. Chad Coburn carried the ball the rest of the way on the following play and the Wildcats led 7-0 with barely two minutes elapsed from the clock.

Linfield struck again five minutes later. Coburn ran 15 yards on fourth-and-inches to the UWO 5. Inns then passed the remaining distance to Deidre Wiersma for the Wildcats' second touchdown. The extra point by Josh Kay made it 14-0 with 4:01 left in the first quarter.

A bad omen came early for the Wildcats, though, who lost starting all-conference linebacker Dominique Forrest to an injury late in the first quarter.

Immediately after, the Titans reeled of two long running plays, including Cole Myhra's 29-yard rambling touchdown less than three minutes later. Nate Ray's extra point failed, leaving the score 14-6 in favor of the hosts.

After an Oshkosh drive stalled and the Titans were forced to punt, Linfield drove 80 yards in 10 plays and scored on an 8-yard blast by Stephen Nasca. That pushed the 'Cats in front 21-6 midway through the second period.

The Titans moved into Linfield territory in the closing minute of the half. On a third-and-8 play, Wara found Voss for a 45-yard gain to the Linfield 23. The Wildcats defense stiffened, and on fourth down, Ray's 33-yard field goal was blocked by Brian Dundas, giving the Wildcats momentum heading into halftime locker room.

Both quarterbacks were efficient in the first half. Inns completed 8 of 12 throws for 93 yards while Wara was 7 for 8 for 71 yards. UWO held a slight edge in total yards, 193-191, at the intermission. The Wildcats were 3-of-3 inside the red zone.

The Titans pocketed the game's first turnover in the opening minutes of the third quarter and turned the Wildcats' miscue into points. Inns was picked off by linebacker Beau Steffens, who returned the ball 26 yards to the Linfield 39. Six plays later, Ray booted a 28-yard field goal to snip the margin to 12.

Linfield manufactured another clock-chewing drive to keep UW-Oshkosh at arm's length. A 13-play march covering 77 yards was capped by Kay's 18-yard field goal. The Wildcats had three opportunities to reach the end zone from the 1, but the Titans defense stopped Coburn twice for no gain and he passed incomplete from the wildcat formation on third down. Kay's kick pushed the 'Cats back in front, 24-9.

With time winding down in the third quarter, the Titans drove inside Linfield territory where Wara appeared to be picked off by Michael Link at the 5. But an encroachment call allowed the drive to continue and three plays later, Wara rolled outside the pocket and scored from the 2. The extra point made it 24-16.

Coburn returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield, giving the 'Cats golden field position, but Kyle Heller intercepted Inns at the Oshkosh 18. Linfield got the ball back when Dundas recovered Myhra's fumble at the UWO 22, though the Wildcats failed to capitalize when Ryan Stefaniak rejected Kay's 33-yard field goal attempt.

Wara and the Titans put together a clutch drive of their own, moving 80 yards in 10 plays before the slippery quarterback snuck across the goal line from the 1. A two-point pass play to Cory Wipperfurth knotted the score at 24 with 7:43 left in the game.

A punt pinned the Titans back at their own 9 where Linfield yielded just 24 yards and Wara was sacked by Tim Edmonds on third down. Coburn returned the ensuing punt to the Oshkosh 44. Inns then passed 8 yards to Wiersma, scrambled to the UWO 29, before finding Aaron Hire for a 7-yard pickup to the 22.  Kay lined up for a 39-yard field goal with three seconds left in regulation but Nathan Smith blocked the potential game-winning kick.

The Titans needed just four plays in overtime to cinch the game. Wara and Voss hooked up on a 21-yard catch-and-run as the Titans took their first lead of the game, 30-24. Inns' pass on Linfield's first overtime play fell incomplete, and on second down, a razzle-dazzle play in the backfield went awry and Thompson recovered the ball to touch off a wild celebration.

John Shaffer led the Linfield ground game with 61 yards on 16 carries and Nasca netted 41 yards on nine rushes. Wiersma caught seven passes for 93 yards. Charlie Poppen totaled 108 receiving yards on six receptions. Coburn had 112 all-purpose yards, including 55 on a pair of kickoff returns.

'CAT SCRATCH: Saturday's estimated attendance was 2,300. . . the Wildcats are now 16-8 all-time in the NCAA playoffs. . . Wara, a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, came into Saturday's game with 2,808 passing yards and 28 touchdowns . . . the season-ending defeat marked the final game for 16 Linfield seniors, who together compiled a four-year record of 42-5. . . Inns concluded his career third all time in pass completions with 474, surpassing former All-American Tyler Matthews (2000-03). . . Wiersma became just the sixth player in Linfield history to eclipse 2,000 career receiving yards. . . he finished his four-year career with 2,085, moving ahead of former all-star John Nosler (2,049) for No. 5 on the all-time receiving yards list. . . for the third time in four years, Linfield ended its season with a single defeat.

The definitive history of the USFL: Football for a Buck, by Jeff Pearlman. Available now!
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