There are years when the most intricate designs of coach Scott Westering’s inventive Pacific Lutheran University football offense stay on a bookshelf in the coaches’ office, collecting dust.
But then there are years such as 2014 — one that sees 10 offensive starters return, including all skill-position players — when Westering’s juices flow like a mad scientist, not only allowing himself to bring out the entire playbook, but adding stuff to it.
For a half, the Lutes’ multi-layered offense was a thing of beauty. And when it did bog down, the defense made enough stops to preserve 17th-ranked PLU’s 35-28 non-conference victory over fast-tempo California Lutheran on Saturday afternoon at Sparks Stadium.
Senior tailback Niko Madison piled up 149 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Lutes (1-0) amassed 253 yards on the ground — with 209 coming in the first half.
It was evident Westering and offensive coordinator Trevor Roberts had tweaked some of the team’s run-game principles in an attempt to get the football in the hands of playmakers, including receivers Richard Johnson (32-yard run on a double reverse) and Kyle Warner (11-yard run on an end-around), who was also utilized on a read-option carry as well.
It all left the Kingsmen dumbfounded as the Lutes built a 21-7 halftime lead.
“That is the versatility that is granted us … being a veteran offense,” Westering said. “That allows us to turn it loose, go in the lab and start playing around a little bit and then come out and try to do different things to put pressure in different ways on teams.”
But after halftime, the Lutes returned to some of their bad wizardry of last season — juggling the football and turning it over a couple of times.
After Connor Cummings whiffed trying to catch a punt on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Kingsmen recovered the fumble at the Lutes’ 29.
Seven plays later, quarterback David Rico rolled out to his left on third down and decided to tuck it and run. He squeezed between two PLU defenders for a 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 21-21 with 12:57 remaining.
But the Lutes had a big-time answer 24 seconds later.
On second down, quarterback Dalton Ritchey thought he had tight end Lucas Sontra open on an out-route along the left sideline. Then at the last second, he looked up and saw Warner streaking along the seam completely uncovered.
Ritchey tossed it to him, and Warner did the rest on a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown connection to give the Lutes a 28-21 lead.
“I was going to throw the out (route), but then I saw the safety bear down,” Ritchey said. “I don’t think I realized until I threw it how open (Warner) was. It was easy, and it was awesome watching him run.”
CLU’s Erron Christmas fumbled the ball on the ensuing kickoff, setting up Madison’s second score, a 4-yard right-side scamper with 8:24 remaining.
The Kingsmen drove to the Lutes’ 36 on their next drive, but faced a fourth down. Linebacker Travis McCarthy — one of the three returning starters on the defensive side of the ball — crashed in from the right side and hit quarterback Nick Isham, forcing an incomplete pass at the 5:54 mark.
The PLU defense forced three turnovers.
“We had some gaps to fill with a lot of guys who didn’t have a ton of experience, but they played great,” McCarthy said. “We can get a lot better, but we got it done today.”
CLU did score a late touchdown, and got the ball back with 21 seconds remaining. But defensive back Spencer McKinnon picked off an Isham pass at the Lutes’ 37 to end the game.
Behind sophomore quarterback Hans Fortune, making his first career start in place of injured Braden Foley, the Loggers tallied three touchdowns in the final 2:54, but fell short in a non-conference game in Los Angeles.
But they did make it interesting.
Fortune threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Dustin Harris to cut it to 34-19 at the 2:54 mark.
And then Brent McCoy recovered the onside kick for UPS, which eventually led to Fortune’s only interception of the day.
After the UPS defense held, Fortune tossed a 78-yard touchdown strike to Chris Branham to slice it to 35-24 with 1:04 to go.
And the Loggers recovered another onside kick, this time by David Teskey. It led to Fortune’s 8-yard touchdown to Brennan Schon, capping a 54-yard drive with 18 seconds remaining.
Trailing 34-32, the Loggers needed to recover one more onside kick to have a chance, but Occidental’s Samuel Stekol came up with the recovery with 17 seconds remaining.
Fortune finished 34-for-60 for 533 yards and five touchdowns. It was the most yards a UPS quarterback has thrown for since 2010.
“He was awesome,” UPS coach Jeff Thomas said. “He led the offense extremely well. Down 21, he plugged away and did a great job.”