Wildcats travel to St. John's, hope to avenge last year's loss
McMINNVILLE Ð Linfield's Wildcats are going to try to do something new Saturday Ñ win a playoff game on the road.
'We are right where we want to be,' says quarterback Tyler Mathews, who guides the third-ranked Wildcats into battle against second-ranked St. John's at Collegeville, Minn., in an NCAA Division III showdown.
Believe it or not, Mathews means on the road, against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago in McMinnville with a -21-14 decision in the quarterfinals.
Linfield has won three national championships and a host of playoff games during its rich football history. But the Wildcats haven't won a playoff road game since a 27-21 win at Pacific Lutheran in 1986.
'At the beginning of the season, we kind of joked around that we wanted to get St. John's at their place, and that has happened,' Mathews says. 'To travel, to see them at their stadium, to visit their neck of the woods Ñ we've been wanting this for a long time.'
It is an adventure for Linfield, -11-0 and breezing through its national-record 48th consecutive winning season. But it's also a team on a mission after not fulfilling its mantra of 'Leave No Doubt' the previous season.
The Wildcats lost 13 starters from last year's 10-1 team, including nearly the entire offensive line that paved the way for tailback David Russell to amass a school-record 1,541 yards rushing.
They also lost first-team All-America safety Ray Lions, who suffered a broken neck in the first game of this season. But the Wildcats have responded with a more balanced offensive attack and a young defense that has risen to the occasion whenever necessary.
'Last year, we were going to ram it down your throats,' says Mathews a 6-3, 205-pound senior from Ellensburg, Wash. 'This year, we like to go outside and air it out a little more, and we have the players to do it.'
Mathews, a three-year starter, has thrown for 2,746 yards and 33 touchdowns with only nine interceptions this season. With 71 yards passing against St. John's, he will break David Lindley's single-season passing record and is sure to become the school's first All-America first-team quarterback.
Jay Locey considers Mathews, 26-2 as a starter, the best quarterback he has coached in his eight seasons as Linfield's head man.
'Tyler is just a tough kid,' Locey says. 'He has taken some hits, and he always bounces up. He has a lot of savvy, he throws a good deep ball, and we've been able to throw more. It's nice to have a senior running the show.'
Leading a young but talented defense is linebacker Harrison Bertsch, a 6-1, 215-pound senior from Rathdrum, Idaho, who made 17 tackles in a 23-20 second-round win over Wartburg, Iowa.
'Harrison is a playmaker kind of guy,' Locey says. 'We have a few of those types on the defensive side.'
Bertsch says there were more question marks at the start of this season than the Wildcats faced at the beginning of 2002.
'We have had some setbacks, especially losing Ray, but the team has come a long way from the beginning of the season,' Bertsch says. 'It's been nice to see everything fall into place.'
Linfield and Pacific Lutheran annually set the bar for their Northwest small-college brethren. Tradition plays a part in that.
'Over the years, the older guys have always showed leadership,' Bertsch says. 'Every year it's been passed down to the younger guys how it is around here, and it just keeps getting passed down through generations.'
The players credit Locey, 61-16 during his head-coaching career, and his staff, too.
'There's not a man on earth I would rather play for than Coach Locey,' Mathews says. 'He cares about us as players and as individuals. He's an incredible guy and a football genius.'