MCMINNVILLE, ORE. — Saturday marked the end of Pacific Lutheran University’s first football season since the death of legendary coach Frosty Westering.
The season ended with a 42-21 loss to Linfield College in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. Though the Lutes (8-2) were eliminated by Linfield in the opening round for the second consecutive year, they seemed to take consolation from a belief that their season would have made Frosty proud.
“It’s been a pretty unique year for me with Dad passing in April,” PLU coach Scott Westering said. “To watch these young men grow, and not just as football players, but with who they want to be in their lives, in their jobs and as husbands, and — Lord willing — fathers. That’s always been the payoff for us, and it was for my father.”
Westering said his team grew over the season, but few of their wins came easily.
They quickly smacked into another challenge Saturday at Maxwell Field, as Linfield stormed to a 28-0 lead. Two of those touchdown drives covered more than 70 yards, but two others needed just 12 and 22 yards because of an interception and a blocked punt.
Even then, PLU quarterback Dalton Ritchey and his offense didn’t doubt they were up to the challenge.
“If you know anything about this program, you know that’s what it’s all about,” Ritchey said. “We pulled the offense over on the sideline, and we said: ‘Right now it’s not even about the score. We’re just playing for ourselves. Nobody believes that we can come back and do what we can do. But we’ve got it.’ ”
In the third quarter, the Lutes got on the board, with Ritchey hitting tight end Lucas Sontra from 12 yards. Early in the fourth quarter, they connected for a 1-yard score.
Suddenly, PLU’s deficit was sliced in half, and almost 14 minutes remained.
“We came back and got it to 28-14 and had the momentum,” Westering said. “And that was kind of the critical tipping point at that point of the game: when they drove and we couldn’t hold them.
“Had we held serve there, so to speak, and gotten the ball back ... that would have been exciting to see how that would have played.”
Instead, the Wildcats answered with back-to-back touchdowns that pushed their advantage to 42-14.
Richey and Sontra connected for a third touchdown in the closing minutes, this time from 15 yards.
Linfield (10-0) will play host to Hampden-Sydney (Virginia) in the round of 16 next Saturday.
“They’re going to do a great job of representing the (Northwest Conference) now on this national playoff run for them, and they’ll show the strength of the conference,” Westering said. “Where that will land, I don’t know. But they’re a very, very good football team.”
PLU outgained Linfield in total offense, 379-355. Ritchey led the Lutes with 34 yards rushing and completed 17 of 32 passes for 299 yards.
However, the Lutes lost a fumble, and Ritchey was intercepted twice. There also was that blocked punt, and only one conversion on six fourth-down attempts.
It added up to too many mistakes against a Division III powerhouse, which is coming off its third consecutive unbeaten regular season and now has won 14 straight games against PLU.
“Linfield is a great team, and they played very well,” Westering said. “For us to beat and hang in there with them ... we have to make big plays.
“We hit some big plays, and we got going and created some opportunities and got them off balance. But it’s kind of tough when the score gets to where it was.”