EAU CLAIRE, WIS. – A dream Northwest Conference opener next week nearly lost some of its luster.
Tenth-ranked Pacific Lutheran (3-0) needed a two-point conversion stop with 41 seconds remaining to hang for a 21-19 non-conference victory over Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Saturday.
Joel Sweeney, who led the Blugolds (0-3) with 123 yards on 31 carries and three touchdowns, scored from the 1 with 41 seconds to go. After a timeout, Sweeney got the ball again for the conversion run, but the Lutes rose up on defense to deny the two-pointer. PLU recovered the ensuing onside kick to secure the win.
What awaits the Lutes a week from now is a NWC-opening match-up with conference arch-rival and second-ranked Linfield in McMinnville, Ore.
“We knew we were in for a big, big challenge today,” PLU coach Scott Westering said. “That’s where your character grows, in these opportunities. We’ve had this in our first three games, and that’s what’s so great setting us up for our tough conference that’s ahead for us is the battles that we have faced.”
The Lutes scored on three of their first five drives to build a 21-7 halftime lead.
Kelly Morgan’s 2-yard run capped an eight-play, 83-yard drive midway through the first quarter, and PLU went right back to work when the Blugolds (0-3) fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Starting at the Blugolds’ 40-yard line, the Lutes covered the distance in four plays – aided by a pass-interference call – with Niko Madison scoring from the 7 to put PLU up 14-0.
Eau Claire got on the scoreboard when Sweeney bowled over from the 2 on fourth down with 6:31 to go in the second quarter, but the Lutes countered on their next possession with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Dalton Ritchey to Kyle Warner to make it 21-7.
Ritchey completed 20 of 31 passes for 164 yards and the one touchdown. He also ran for 59 yards. Madison led the way on the ground with 93 yards on 11 carries.
But as the PLU offense went cold and the rain began, the Blugolds chipped away at the lead. Sweeney scored from 10 yards with 4:29 to play in the third quarter, but the missed conversion kick left the Lutes with a 21-13 advantage.
The Blugolds made one more push – taking 16 plays to march from their own 12 with Sweeney capping the drive inside the final minute. The Lutes held, and now are looking for their first win over Linfield since 2001.