Lincoln's defense stepped up in the second half to lead the Cardinals to a 28-14 win over Gresham in Friday's first round of the Class 6A football playoffs.
The Cardinals' reward: a second-round road game next week against powerful Sheldon (10-0). The Irish beat Clackamas 50-0 on Friday, scoring all their points in the first half.
Lincoln (7-4) won for the fourth time in its last five games in beating Gresham (7-3), the runner-up to Central Catholic in the Mt. Hood Conference. But it wasn't easy, especially in the first half.
The teams traded touchdowns to open the game at Lincoln's Mike Walsh Field.
The Cardinals fell behind 14-6 when the Gophers capitalized on a turnover, an interception return by Gresham's Micah Tolai that set up the Gresham score - on a fourth-and-12 pass play from Devon Shields to Marcus Martinez just outside the Cardinal 20-yard line.
After that, a driving rain washed away what was beginning to look like a shootout.
The teams went into halftime tied 14-14, with Cards back Andrew Ellsworth scoring on a 2-yard run with 29 seconds left in the second quarter and quarterback Johnny Williams sprinting to the corner on a bootleg for the 2-point conversion.
In the second half, Lincoln's defense shut down the Gophers' offense and the Cards' offense did just enough for the two-TD win.
'It was our defense,' Lincoln coach Mike Fanger said. 'They absolutely came to play."
The Cardinals came into the game having allowed 28.4 points per game.
"We've gone through some ups and downs and given up some big scores and some big chunks of yardage," Fanger said, "and they just flat out outplayed (Gresham's offense).'
The Cardinals said they were looking forward to the match-up with Sheldon, which won the state title in 2007 and 2009 and has been to at least the quarterfinals in each of the past five seasons.
'It feels real good knowing that we have the No. 1 team,' Lincoln receiver and quarterback Koleman Vance said.
Sheldon and Lake Oswego are 1-2, in that order, in the Associated Press poll. The order is reversed in the Oregon School Activities Association. The Irish have had one key setback of late, losing all-league running back Ryan Land to a lacerated kidney.
'Biggest opportunity of the year," Vance said, of playing Sheldon. "We want this. Since we saw the bracket come out, we wanted the Sheldon game. So going down there is great.'
Lincoln began the Gresham game with a 78-yard, six-play touchdown drive. On the fifth play, Williams completed a 35-yard pass to Vance.
Inside the 10, Vance went behind center in a wildcat formation. He took the snap and ran 6 yards into the end zone to put Lincoln up 6-0.
'That catch really helped me calm down throughout the game,' Vance said. 'I broke open, saw the ball spinning and got down with it. It felt nice. The game was coming slow to me (after that). I was just focused and made plays when I had the opportunity.'
The Gophers countered the TD when Devauntae Hoffman scored on a 2-yard run up the middle, and Gresham led 7-6.
Ellsworth's short TD run evened the court just before the half.
'Our O-line was really moving us toward the end zone and opening up some big holes,' said Ellsworth, who finished the game with 21 carries for 111 yards.
'That was huge because we went into halftime with momentum and we knew we could come out and keep scoring,' Ellsworth said.
Lincoln began the second half by turning the ball over on downs at the Gresham 40. But on the next play, Lincoln defensive lineman PJ Smith recovered a fumbled snap.
Lincoln capitalized when Williams scored on a 28-yard TD run.
'It was a QB keeper, and I could throw it out to the (slot receiver) if I wanted to,' Williams said. 'I didn't need to. Our line was making great blocks, and I just made the cutback. It felt great. Nothing better than scoring in football.'
Williams, a junior who is the brother of 2010 Lincoln quarterback and current MIT quarterback Peter Williams, finished the game 9 of 21 passing for 137 yards.
Gresham had one final chance to pull even, but faced a long field after Lincoln punter Alex McPhee killed a ball at the 10 with 6:21 remaining.
The Gophers picked up three first downs to reach midfield and were facing third-and-1 when disaster hit. Coach Todd Nagel had called for a QB sneak on a silent count to catch the defense by surprise, but one of the Gophers moved and drew a false-start penalty. That put Gresham into a throwing situation, and two incompletions ended the drive.
'Any time you have to go 90 yards it's going to be tough, and we just had too many mistakes tonight,' Nagel said. "They outplayed us up front, which is something we didn't expect. You have to give them credit. Lincoln just beat us."
The Cardinals, one of two Portland Interscholastic League teams in the final 16 of 6A (Grant advanced with a 40-32 win at Grants Pass) clinched the victory with 35 seconds remaining. After a long drive, Ellsworth took an inside handoff 4 yards into the end zone.
'It was great knowing that I had just sealed the game, and our O-line really cleared the way for me,' Ellsworth said.
Fanger said he has confidence in the Cardinals as they prepare for Sheldon.
'I feel great,' he said. 'What a great opportunity. Sheldon is a fantastic program, a storied program, a championship program. We'll go down there and give it our best shot.'