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Defense saves the day for Linfield

Five takeaways and a last-minute stand at midfield send the Wildcats to a 27-24 first-round win over Pacific Lutheran


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: DAVID BALL - Linfield linebacker Brian Dundas knocks Pacific Lutheran QB Dalton Ritchey to the turf to stop the Lutes on their final drive Saturday.

MCMINNVILLE — None of the numbers on the scoreboard were in Pacific Lutheran’s favor when it took to the field for its final drive against Linfield in the first round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs Saturday afternoon.

The points showed Linfield with a 27-24 lead. The clock didn’t have many ticks left with 1:33 remaining.

But most troubling for the Lutes was the zero showing under timeouts.

Pacific Lutheran found itself in trouble immediately when Linfield lineman Mike Maierhofer broke into the backfield and sacked QB Dalton Ritchey for a 12-yard loss, trapping the Lutes inside their own 10-yard line.

Pacific Lutheran received a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card on the next play when a facemask penalty on the Wildcats ended up in an automatic first down.

The home fans had reason to worry a few plays later when Ritchey connected with Daniel Herr over the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain on 3rd-and-4 to move the ball into Linfield’s side of the field.

With the clock rolling under a minute, Ritchey stepped to the line and spiked the ball.

Needing one mid-range pass completion to give their kicker a chance at a tying field goal, Ritchey dropped back to pass on second down. Linfield’s Marq Randall came around from behind and almost knocked the ball out of the QB’s hand. The pressure was enough to force Ritchey top step forward where he was met with a crushing hit by Wildcats’ linebacker Brian Dundas for an 8-yard loss.

With time ticking away, Ritchey picked himself off the turf, sprinted to the line and spiked the ball again.

In a flash it was 4th-and-18, and the Lutes were down to their final chance.

Lutes’ receiver Kyle Warner had been the team’s main weapon all day, pulling down 12 catches for 205 yards. So it was no surprise when Ritchey targeted him going over the middle near the first-down marker, but the throw whizzed past about a stride too far in front.

Linfield’s offense returned to the field took a knee and celebrated.

The No. 3-ranked Wildcats face No. 14 North Central out of Illinois in next Saturday’s second round. Linfield is expected to host the game at 12 p.m., although the NCAA announces the official host sites Sunday afternoon.

North Central picked up a 41-21 road win at Cal Lutheran, keeping the Wildcats from a rematch with the Kingsmen who they beat by a field goal early in the season.

“It’s hard to beat a good team twice, so it will be fun to have a chance to play somebody new,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: DAVID BALL - Linfield receiver Deidre Wiersma breaks toward the sideline after making a catch in Saturdays 27-24 playoff win.

Linfield looked to take control of Saturday’s game early in the fourth quarter, driving into the red zone when QB Mickey Inns hit Tom Knecht with a short pass. Knecht made a move for the goal line, but was hit at the 3-yard line and the ball popped out leaving Pacific Lutheran’s Greg Hibbard with an uncontested recovery.

The Wildcats no longer had the ball, but they would need only one play to find the end zone.

The Lutes went to the air with Ritchey firing a quick throw toward the sideline, but the pass traveled barely halfway to its destination when Linfield’s Tyler Robitaille stepped in front, made the two-handed pick and took a couple strides into the end zone.

“They had been hitting that out pattern all day, so we tried to fool them and bait them into throwing it again,” Robitaille said. “I was surprised that he threw it, but I broke on the ball and it was right there for me.”

The Lutes’ fifth turnover of the day put Linfield in front 27-17 with 12:02 to play.

Pacific Lutheran had a chance to make it a one-possession game again, facing 4th-and-1 deep in Linfield territory with about six minutes left.

Head coach Scott Westering called time out and chose against a 30-yard field goal try. Instead, Ritchey lined up in the shotgun, faked a handoff inside and bolted around left end for a 12-yard touchdown run. The gutsy play brought the Lutes within 27-24 with 5:25 on the clock.

“Pacific Lutheran is a good team, and they just keep coming back,” Smith said. “I didn’t expect this one to get out of hand.”

With no timeouts, the Lutes needed a quick stop to put their offense back on the field. They were on the verge of just that after forcing Linfield into a 3rd-and-4 play that had Inns scanning the field for an open receiver. With his main options covered, the senior QB stepped up in the pocket to give himself another half-second. It was just enough time to spot Deidre Wiersma breaking open over the middle. He caught a low dart at the knees for a 7-yard gain.

“Getting that first down was big,” Inns said. “It gave our defense a little more room to work.”

It also allowed the Wildcats to run another two minutes off the clock before punting the ball away.

Inns finished the day 22 for 35 for 210 yards with one interception. Charlie Poppen was his top target with seven catches for 70 yards.

Pacific Lutheran got on top early when Niko Madison ran in from 6 yards out, and the Lutes maintained a 7-3 edge midway through the second quarter.

But the wheels fell off before halftime.

Linfield cut the gap to a single point when Josh Kay connected on his second long-range field goal of the day.

Pacific Lutheran fumbled the ball away on its next drive with Linfield’s Dominique Forrest recovering near the sideline.

That set the stage for Linfield’s ‘Beef’ package, which takes the QB off the field and puts four running backs behind center. Chad Coburn took the shotgun snap and simply followed his load of running mates into the end zone for a 13-7 lead.

Pacific Lutheran’s next possession ended quickly, as well with Forrest dropping into the middle of the field and intercepting a pass thrown just behind his shoulder pads.

“They came out in a bunch-receiver set, and I just read the QB’s eyes,” Forrest said. “The ball came right to me.”

Coburn converted that turnover into points with a 1-yard plunge through the middle to make it 20-7 Linfield at the half.

Forrest led the Wildcats’ defense with 10 tackles and a pair of takeaways, while Maierhofer came up with two sacks and three tackles for loss.

SCORING SUMMARY

Pacific Lutheran 7 0 10 7 — 24

Linfield 3 17 0 7 — 27

First quarter

LNF — Josh Kay 47 FG, 7:13

PLU — Niko Madison 6 run (Jacob Schrader kick), 2:35

Second quarter

LNF — Kay 42 FG, 7:09

LNF — Chad Coburn 4 run (Kay kick), 6:13

LNF — Coburn 1 run (Kay kick), 3:22

Third quarter

PLU — Lucas Sontra 21 pass from Dalton Ritchey (Schrader kick), 8:30

PLU — Schrader 20 FG, 1:35

Fourth quarter

LNF — Tyler Robitaille 5 interception return (Kay kick), 12:02

PLU — Ritchey 13 run (Schrader kick), 5:25

View a photo gallery of the game at …

http://daveball.exposuremanager.com/g/nov17linfield_playoff