In an unusually unproductive offensive display for Linfield, it was the leg of senior placekicker Scott Birkhofer that made the difference, as he accounted for all the points on the scoreboard Oct. 4 against Menlo College.
Birkhofer, an All-American last year, showed power and precision behind his right foot, booting a school-record 54-yard field goal early in the first quarter between the uprights with plenty of room to spare. The kick bested a 53-yard kick of Birkhofer’s from last season that stood as the record.
He scored two other field goals in the first quarter, from 32 and 39 yards, respectively. Those points were enough to win it for Linfield, as the defense stymied Menlo, sneaking by with a 9-0 win.
The ’Cats, enjoying their first conference win this season, move to 2-1 overall and prepare to challenge Whitworth University on Oct. 11 in McMinnville for the annual Homecoming game. Last week, Whitworth lost 32-23 to Willamette University, who was ranked No.23 among NCAA Division-III.
Several of the nagging injuries that have depleted the offensive roster for the ’Cats may have factored into their low-scoring game.
For the third game in a row, Linfield started a new quarterback. Sophomore Cole Bixenman, a third-stringer at the start of the season, completed just seven passes and threw two interceptions as he filled in for injured sophomore Cole Franklin.
“We had a lot of guys playing unique roles for us,” head coach Joe Smith said during an Oct. 6 press conference. “[Bixenman] had to come in and start, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Smith said Franklin was doubtful to start, but since then he has been practicing with the team. Whether Franklin starts is likely to be a game-time decision.
Several underclassmen saw significant playing time on the field against the Oaks. Freshmen safety Drew Fisher, wide receiver Buddy Saxon and defensive end Sparky Gonzalez all played well given their relative inexperience, Smith said.
The running back duo of senior Jon Montalvo and sophomore Simon Lamson was a bright spot among the offense. Splitting the workload, they rushed for 131 yards on 28 carries, giving Bixenman a steady balance so he didn’t pass as often.
“We would have liked to get on the board on offense, but I think we played pretty well overall,” Montalvo said.
Much of the game was a battle for field position, with both teams failing to capitalize when moving the ball into scoring territory.
Despite various attempts in different formations by Linfield, senior wide receiver Travis Masters was unable to break out any long plays. He went in motion, ran from the backfield and was spread out wide, but the dynamic playmaker accounted for just 57 yards of total offense.
While the ’Cats offense sputtered, the stingy defense earned its first shutout in seven years. Fisher led the team with 10 tackles, and senior defensive end Taylor Summers haunted the Menlo offensive line, sneaking past for four sacks on the quarterback.
“All we can do is control how we play, we can’t worry about the offense,” junior cornerback Bubba Lemon said.
As the only returning starter among the secondary, Lemon said the defense was able to handle the pressure of the close contest and help out the offense by making a few big plays.
Lemon stopped one of Menlo’s best scoring opportunities late in the second quarter, intercepting a pass from sophomore quarterback Tony Rehn at the 25-yard line.
After notching its second win of the season, the ’Cats have to win just three of their next six games to keep the streak of 53 consecutive winning seasons alive.
Defense will likely be the key to the game against two-time defending NWC champion Whitworth University, who has beat Linfield the last two seasons and consequently kept them out of the playoffs.
Linfield lost both of its last two contests against Whitworth by slim margins. The ’Cats did not allow a single touchdown on offense in either game.
Whitworth junior running back Adam Anderson is a workhorse for the Pirates.
He has accounted for more than half of their total offense so far this
“The guys up front have to control the line of scrimmage,” Smith said. “That’s going to be our big emphasis this week, getting back to basics.”
Lemon said he hopes momentum will give Linfield the edge heading into the game.
“We’re anxious for this game,” he said. “Everybody’s enjoying the feel of the last two games, and we don’t want to lose that. It’s going to propel us.”