McMINNVILLE, Ore. – Linfield's fourth-quarter rally fell one score short as the No. 5 Wildcats lost to Willamette 31-28 in Northwest Conference football Saturday afternoon at Maxwell Field. The Bearcats built a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter and then held on for the upset.
Linfield (6-1 overall, 4-1 NWC) saw a number of lengthy streaks come to an end with the loss. The Wildcats had won 41 consecutive regular season games, 38 consecutive NWC games and 25 consecutive regular-season home games before being beaten by Willamette (5-2, 3-2).
Linfield, the five-time defending NWC champion, can still secure the NWC's automatic berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs with victories in its final two games, at Puget Sound and at home against Pacific.
On Saturday, Willamette intercepted Linfield quarterback Sam Riddle three times and recovered a fumble by Wildcat running back Samuel Robinson. The Bearcats converted those turnovers into 14 points to help put the Wildcats in a big hole.
Willamette had taken a 31-14 lead on Dylan Jones' 98-yard run with 12:02 left in the fourth quarter. The game-clinching score came on the first play after Riddle was intercepted by Nick Brickous on a deep ball at the Bearcat 2-yard line. Jones, the NWC's leading rusher finished with 166 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries, recording his seventh consecutive 100-yard game this season.
Linfield, which hadn't trailed since its season-opener at Chapman, stormed back with a pair of touchdowns in the next 1 minute, 24 seconds to draw within 31-28 and seize the momentum.
After taking the kickoff, the Wildcats drove 64 yards in four plays, all passes, the touchdown coming on a 25-yard connection from Riddle to Colin Nelson in the left side of the end zone with 10:54 remaining.
The Bearcats fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, with Linfield's John Carroll recovering at the Willamette 21-yard line. On the next play, Bryan Cassil scampered to the left off a draw play for the touchdown and the deficit was down to 31-28 with 10:38 still to play.
Linfield's defense held Willamette to just one first down the rest of the way, but the Wildcat offense couldn't come up with the tying or go-ahead score.
With just over six minutes left, Linfield moved from its own 47 to the Bearcat 22 and faced third-and-five. Cassil was stuffed for a two-yard loss on a draw play, and a 41-yard field goal by Michael Metter was short to leave Willamette in the lead.
The Bearcats led from the outset, taking the opening kickoff and going 65 yards in 11 plays, scoring on Jones' one-yard run. The Wildcats tied the score 7-7 with 10:31 left in the half on Riddle's five-yard run that capped an 11-play, 82-yard drive.
Willamette regained the lead on its next possession, taking 7:02 to go 77 yards, Jones scoring from five yards out to make it 14-7. After Riddle was intercepted by Damian Jackson late in the half, the Bearcats got a 30-yard field goal by Conner Mertens to push their advantage to 17-7 at halftime.
Willamette extended its lead to 24-7 early in the fourth quarter as Derek Traeger caught a 12-yard pass from Spallas. Linfield responded with a score of its own, an 18-yard pass from Riddle to Charlie Poppen to cut the gap to 24-14.
Riddle, who had only been intercepted just twice this season before Saturday, finished 17-for-23 passing for 197 yards and two touchdowns. But he was sacked four times for 27 yards in losses. Cassil rushed 10 times for 72 yards and a touchdown and Riddle added 13 carries for 24 yards and a touchdown. Poppen led Linfield receivers with seven catches for 101 yards and on TD.
Willamette quarterback Trent Spallas completed 9 of 21 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown while being intercepted once. He also carried 13 times for 34 yards.
WU linebacker Jack Nelson led all tacklers with 12 stops. Wildcats linebacker Eli Biondine was credited with eight total tackles, including a sack and one other tackle for loss.
'CAT SCRATCH: Linfield's last regular-season loss had been at California Lutheran, 47-42, in the season-opening game of 2010. The Wildcats' last conference loss and regular-season home defeat was also to Willamette, 52-28, in the sixth game of the 2008 season. . . no current Linfield player had lost a conference game or a regular-season home game prior to Saturday, and only a handful of fifth-year seniors had lost a regular season game. . . Saturday's announced attendance was 1,712. . . Linfield has assured itself a 59th consecutive winning season, the longest such streak in college football history at any level. Since starting the streak with the 1956 season, Linfield has a record of 454-117-10 for a winning percentage of .790 … after Saturday's game, Linfield leads the all-time series with Willamette 49-35-3 in a rivalry dating back to 1902. The Wildcats have won 35 of the last 44 against the Bearcats and had won five straight in the series before Saturday's upset.
NEXT: Linfield heads north to Tacoma, Wash., for a Saturday afternoon matchup with the Puget Sound Loggers. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. with the live radio and internet audiocast beginning at 12:30 p.m.