McMINNVILLE, Ore. – In this decade of dominance for Linfield College football, few in the Northwest Conference have risen to challenge the Wildcats in the biggest of moments.
But twice Pacific Lutheran took the No. 3 Wildcats right to the wire this season – including in the teams’ NCAA Division III first-round playoff game at Maxwell Field on Saturday afternoon.
And twice, PLU fell short in its bid for a victory.
This defeat – a 27-24 loss on the Wildcats’ rain-soaked home field – was, perhaps, the most impressive effort PLU has had against the reigning four-time defending NWC champions in a long time.
Fighting to overcome five turnovers – four by quarterback Dalton Ritchey – the Lutes had the football in their hands in the final minutes, and reached the Wildcats’ 41 with a realistic chance to pull off the upset.
But Linfield’s defense, which led the nation in sacks in 2012, came through when linebacker Brian Dundas dumped Ritchey for a 6-yard loss on a sack, leaving the Lutes in a fourth-and-long.
And when Ritchey’s pass to Kyle Warner – easily the best player on the field from either team Saturday with 12 receptions for a career-high 205 yards – fell incomplete, Linfield could breathe a huge sigh of relief after holding on for a hard-earned win.
“The strength of that (PLU) team is to withstand things and keep coming back, as is ours,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said. “I did not expect the game to get out of hand in any direction.
“Our defense really minimized a very good offense. When we are able to do that … we certainly earned (the win).”
Three second-quarter turnovers, all by Ritchey, erased an early 7-3 PLU lead, giving the Wildcats a 20-7 halftime advantage.
And when PLU running back Brandon James fumbled for another turnover on the second play of the second half, it appeared the Lutes would just never give themselves the chance to dig out of the hole.
But behind a stellar defensive effort, which limited the Wildcats to 249 total yards (213 below their season average), forced three turnovers that held the hosts to 5-of-14 success on third-down conversions, the Lutes kept chipping away at Linfield’s lead.
They cut it to 20-14 when Ritchey hit tight end Lucas Sontra for a 21-yard touchdown pass to cap a seven-play, 80-yard drive midway through the third quarter.
Jacob Schrader added a 20-yard field goal with 1:31 to go in the third to slice it to 20-17 for the Lutes.
The real killer for the Lutes came in the fourth quarter. After PLU’s Connor Cummings stripped Linfield’s Evan Peterson after a catch inside the Lutes’ 5 for a turnover, PLU gave it right back in the worst of ways – a Ritchey interception that was returned by Tyler Robitaille 10 yards for a touchdown with 12:02 remaining.
“It digs at my heart … because I know deep down, I wouldn’t ever want to wish that upon us,” Ritchey said of the turnovers.
Yet, the Lutes marched 78 yards in 14 plays – and converted two fourth downs – for their final touchdown, a 13-yard scamper by Ritchey on fourth-and-inches with 5:25 to play.
“Dalton read it well – and it was a great play just to get a first down,” PLU coach Scott Westering said. “To actually score a touchdown created a real opportunity for us.”
Linfield had a final chance to run out the clock, facing a third-and-7 play from its own 37, but Mickey Inns’ deep pass along the right sideline fell incomplete.
“Those third down (stops) were huge,” PLU linebacker Jordan Patterson said.
Ritchey and the offense went to work starting at its own 22 in the final 1:33. He completed a 26-yard pass to Daniel Herr down the middle to get to the Linfield 41.
But after the sack of Ritchey sandwiched around a couple of stop-the-clock spikes at the line of scrimmage, the Lutes faced a long fourth down – and were held with 29 seconds to go.
Warner’s big day – his seventh game of 100 or more receiving yards – gave him 1,264 yards for the season, breaking the old mark of 1,245, set by Al Bessette in 1976.
“I truly believe in my heart we ran out of time,” Westering said.Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 email@example.com @ManyHatsMilles blog.thenewstribune.com/preps