For a final time Saturday, Pacific Lutheran University’s Dalton Ritchey and University of Puget Sound’s Braden Foley will take the huddle as starting quarterbacks for the annual rivalry game.
It also might be the best time to retrace their careers – ones similar in production but far different in direction.
Each has made 26 career starts at quarterback – with Ritchey totaling 6,006 passing yards, ranking fifth all-time in PLU history, and Foley throwing for a school-record 6,004 yards.
Foley has tossed 51 touchdown passes; Ritchey has 49.
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And while Foley’s total-offense numbers are only slightly higher at 6,032 yards, Ritchey – arguably the second-best dual-threat option in PLU history behind record-setter Marc Weekley (10,977 total yards from 1990-93) – has 7,236 yards of total offense, ranking No. 4 all-time.
The quarterbacks’ career paths could not be any less similar, however.
Ritchey is the small-town dynamo from Onalaska who came to one of small-college football’s storied programs, leading the Lutes to a pair of NCAA Division III playoff berths.
Foley, from a bigger high school program in Bothell, was recruited to try and help a new coach rebuild the Loggers’ program – with little hope of ever reaching the postseason.
The status quo around Onalaska High School was that if you were the quarterback, you were handing the football off in a triple-option offense.
What many knew but weren’t quick to admit was that type of offense was the quickest way to waste Ritchey’s talent. He was a three-sport standout with a rifle arm and a stallion’s burst.
John Hallead quickly realized what he had when he was hired to run the football program in 2008. And he brought along with him the offense he was around at Central Washington University – a one-back, zone-read attack.
“You just let Dalton’s athleticism,” Hallead said, “drive your offense.”
That was in high school. Because of Ritchey’s limited quarterback training, Hallead figured his star recruit would be better suited to play safety in college – which Ritchey understood.
“I did not have a quarterbacks coach at Onalaska,” Ritchey said. “What I got was what I taught myself, or learned at some camps.”
PLU coach Scott Westering saw something so convincing in Ritchey’s raw ability that on a visit to the teenager’s house in 2010, he sold Ritchey on the idea of first being given a shot to play quarterback.
Imagine, though, Ritchey’s gut reaction when first handed Westering’s expansive, multi-layered playbook. He was overwhelmed.
But Ritchey had an idea Westering took him up on.
“I was the fourth-string quarterback, and I came to him and said I would love to help the team any way I could,” Ritchey said. “I told him I knew the offense as well as any (freshman) because I was a quarterback, so I tossed my hat in the ring to play (slot) receiver.”
Never mind that Ritchey led the team that 2011 season in receptions (24). Bigger picture, that playing time allowed him to learn the PLU playbook from a different perspective.
It hasn’t been the smoothest three-year ride for Ritchey as the Lutes’ starting quarterback. Passing accuracy hasn’t been a strong suit. And he’s shown a penchant for turning the football over.
But considering where he started, arriving as arguably the least-refined quarterback Westering has ever recruited, Ritchey’s growth has been nothing short of remarkable.
They can now talk the same language. When the two meet on Wednesdays to discuss what to put in the upcoming game plan, Ritchey is full of ideas. Many of them are rejected, but a few of them Westering likes and puts in.
“Scott can be a mad scientist with great ideas … but I have tried to pull the reins back on things,” Ritchey said. “And I think he sometimes gets the sense that we have athletes and good players that we don’t always have to trick defenses. We can just go do it.”
In his 26th start last week, Ritchey had his best game for PLU. He was 15 for 22 passing for 302 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed 16 times for 136 yards, and stuck the landing on a somersault 10-yard touchdown run over a stunned linebacker at the goal line in the Lutes’ 56-14 victory over Willamette.
Westering does not formally grade individual players’ performances, but in his head he counted Ritchey making only “21/2” mistakes — bad decisions or errant throws — on the Lutes’ 73 offensive plays.
An hour after the game, as Westering sat alone on a bench on the field, taking in a game-day setting that reminded him of his final game with his father, Frosty – he got a tap on the shoulder.
“I hear this voice, ‘Just taking it all in, huh?’ I turned around, and it was Dalton,” Westering said. “He sat, and I shook his hand and gave him a hug, and I told him in my 34 years of coaching here, it was one of the finest performances I had ever been around. It was just great to have that moment with him.
“I’ve definitely had to have more patience with this whole process … but I wouldn’t have pushed him if he couldn’t do it. I have broadened his limited way to football, like, ‘Let me show you this room, and that room.’ And now he goes into them, he engages there. It continued to allow me to give him more and more, so this offense could do more and more.”
BOTHELL’S BIG VOICE
Jeff Thomas arrived for his first college head-coaching job at UPS in 2010 with the challenge of reviving the Loggers’ once-proud history.
He had a quarterback in Duncan White to run his spread offense that first season – one that set a variety of single-game and season schools records.
But Thomas needed to start building for the future. And one name of a kid from Bothell High School, who attended the Loggers’ summer camp, kept popping up.
It was Foley.
“He was the vocal leader — just exactly what we were looking for in that first recruiting class,” Thomas said.
Of course, anyone who knows Foley’s true nature — he was a beach-bum lifeguard at Houghton in Kirkland for six years – understands he is way more laid back under normal circumstances.
“On the football field,” Foley said, “everyone flips a switch.”
Under Thomas, the Loggers have a weekly tradition called “Wednesday Night Lights” when scout-team players and other deep reserves hold a scrimmage in front of the starters and backups.
One of those nights in late September not only impressed Thomas, it prompted him to make a season-changing move.
“Braden dominated it,” Thomas said. “He did not throw an incomplete pass. And as we were faltering as an offense, it was obvious he was starting to pick it up and show us what he could do.”
Foley saw action in relief of George Ka’ai, and led the offense to a touchdown on his first series. And in the quarterbacks’ meeting the next week, Thomas launched the bombshell switch.
“He said, ‘We are going to start Braden Foley.’ I mean, I had no idea,” Foley said. “For the first couple days after that, I thought he was sending a message to George. And as the week went on, I figured out he wasn’t joking.”
In his first start against Willamette, Foley threw for 314 yards, a touchdown and five interceptions. After the game, Thomas told his new quarterback he could break all the school’s career passing marks.
And he has. His career passing attempts (979), completions (552), touchdowns (51), yards (6,004) and total offense (6,032) are UPS records.
The numbers are nice. He also knows as long as Thomas is around, they could be short-lived, too.
More important to Foley is establishing the tone for the program moving forward.
Thomas breaks down Foley’s career in three important stages: First, he helped establish a firm preparation mode for the scout team. Second, when he became a younger starter, he showed he could take shots and bounce back. And finally, all the production he has given the Loggers over a long career.
“It is easy to pass him off as a system quarterback,” Thomas said. “Over the test of time, he will be one of the best quarterbacks who played here.”