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Boxers' upset bid falls short


No. 2-ranked Linfield rallies in the second half for a come-from-behind victory against Pacific

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Pacific quarterback P.J. Minaya scrambles away from Linfield defensive end Jeremy Girod during Saturday’s Northwest Conference football game at Lincoln Park Stadium.Even though it ended in a loss, Saturday’s game was perhaps the best measuring stick this season of just how far the Pacific football program has progressed in such a short time.

Playing at home on Senior Day, the Boxers gave undefeated national power Linfield a run for its money, taking a two-point advantage into the fourth quarter before ultimately falling 28-22 at Lincoln Park Stadium. The margin of victory, by far, was Linfield’s narrowest of the season, with its next closest being a 29-0 win against Pacific Lutheran.

With the defeat, the Boxers concluded their remarkable season at 7-3 overall and 3-3 in the Northwest Conference behind Linfield, PLU and Willamette. The No. 2-ranked Wildcats (9-0, 6-0) clinched their fifth straight NWC title and will host PLU in an NCAA Division III first-round playoff game this Saturday in McMinnville.

“There’s no close, but I think from where we started, from where we were a year ago to where we are now, yeah, there’s absolute progress in this football program, and we’re excited with what we’ve got going on,” Pacific head coach Keith Buckley said.

“But I think we had a chance, we were up and we didn’t close it out. That hurts. There’s no way around that, especially on Senior Day, especially for this class of guys. Ultimately, we are extremely proud of the season we’ve had.”

Last Saturday, Linfield did not draw ahead for good until early in the fourth quarter, when Wildcat quarterback Josh Yoder’s 4-yard scoring plunge put the visitors up 21-16 with 13:18 remaining. Yoder added a 13-yard scoring run almost seven minutes later, giving Linfield a two-possession lead and putting a stake in Pacific’s hopes of an upset.

The Boxers could have folded there, but instead they gave themselves a chance to win. With the clock starting to wind down, Pacific quarterback P.J. Minaya helped orchestrate a nine-play, 69-yard scoring drive, and he took the ball in himself from 5 yards out to draw the Boxers within 28-22 with 2:12 to go.

But Linfield’s Colin Nelson reined in the ensuing onside kick attempt by Moses Villareal-Gomez — who booted three field goals on the afternoon — and then the Wildcats earned a first down on a third-and-1 that allowed them to run out the clock and escape Forest Grove with a victory.

“They made great adjustments in the second half. They played real well on offense,” Pacific quarterback T.C. Campbell said. “And we had a chance to win. We just made a few mistakes here and there, and it cost us the game. Overall it was a great fight. It was an honor to just play our last game with all these guys, and such a great game against them, the No. 2-ranked team (in the country).

“I think we actually played them probably the toughest of any team in the conference, so that’s just a testament to where we should be and where our team is right now.”

Villareal-Gomez played a big role in a contest in which scoring was at a relative premium — despite the fact that the Boxers put up the most points on Linfield’s defense of any team all season. The junior kicker earned the first points of the afternoon on a 43-yard field goal with 2:43 left in the first quarter.

The Wildcats took their first lead of the contest just before the end of the stanza. Linfield got plum field position on the Pacific 14 thanks to a fumbled punt. Pacific paid for the turnover, as Yoder scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns on the next play to put Linfield up 7-3 with 20 seconds left in the quarter.

After that, almost another whole quarter passed before any more points were added on the scoreboard. This time it was the Boxers who scored late, and they did it twice. On a drive that started midway through the second quarter, Pacific twice converted on third down, allowing Campbell to hit Jakob Lawrence from 20 yards out with 1:32 left in the half and putting the home team back in front 10-7.

Then the Boxers’ defense came up big. On a Linfield second down, Sean Bangs sacked Yoder on the Wildcats’ 18-yard-line, and Eddie Carillo came up with the fumble recovery on the 21. After Pacific could get no closer than the 12, Villareal-Gomez converted a 29-yard try through the uprights with eight seconds until the intermission for a 13-7 halftime advantage.

The upset was still brewing when Villareal-Gomez kicked his third field goal, this time from 28 yards out, just 1:40 into the second half to cap a 10-play drive.

But the Wildcat defense buckled down from there, allowing no Pacific drive to go inside its 32-yard line until the Boxers’ final possession.

Linfield’s Josh Hill, a first team all-NWC running back, got his team’s comeback going with a 1-yard rushing score with 6:53 remaining in the third period to slice Pacific’s lead to 16-14, and Yoder did the work from there with his own legs.

Pacific lost the game despite outgaining Linfield 381-313 in total yards. Minaya paced the offense with 188 passing yards. He was 17-for-31 with one interception. Campbell went 11-for-17 passing for 114 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Gunther Schultze led the ground game with 13 carries for 47 yards. Lawrence hauled in six receptions for 105 yards, tops among the receivers.

After never having come within 30 points of Linfield in its first three years since reinstatement, this time, as defensive lineman Landon Aano put it, “We stepped toe-to-toe with a giant and punched them in the face.”

While not a victory, the loss capped an incredible season for this Pacific team, just the sixth in school history to post at least seven wins. These Boxers started 5-0 — the first team in school history to achieve that milestone — and they achieved a top-25 ranking in the AFCA Division III poll earlier this month. Notably, and perhaps heartbreakingly so, Pacific’s three losses came by a total of just 11 points.

Saturday’s game also brought to a close the college careers of nearly 40 seniors. This year’s seniors were freshmen during the program’s first season of reinstatement in 2010 and suffered through a combined record of 4-23 the first three years before this fall’s standout season.

In the postgame press conference, Aano recalled an interview he had done the first practice of his freshman year, during which he said the Boxers would be competing with Willamette, PLU and Linfield by this point. He was right.

For his part, Buckley feels indebted to his seniors.

“Thank you seems like such a trivial statement, given the debt of gratitude that this school and I personally owe these guys. When I got hired here, I didn’t know what we were going to get, and four years later, we’ve built a winner, and that’s not me. That’s them.

“That’s the drive that they had to get their teeth kicked in for two years and come back every single Sunday to get better. Thank you’s not enough. I owe them everything.”