Grant Lucas – Sports editor. Christopher Forrer – For the Review. Junior running back Simon Lamson rushed for three touchdowns as the Linfield football team held off the University of St. Thomas 31-20 Dec. 5 to advance to the NCAA Division III semifinals.
This is the ’Cats’ first return to the semis since winning the national championship in 2004. Linfield will face the No. 2 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which defeated Wittenberg University 31-13 Dec. 5.
“It feels awesome,” senior quarterback Aaron Boehme said. “I have to remind myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because you only get so many chances at something as special as this.”
Linfield wasted little time putting points on the board as Lamson capped off two quality drives with short touchdown runs, giving the Wildcats an early 14-0 lead.
The Tommies didn’t answer until midway through the second quarter. After a 47-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel, junior running back Ben Wartman scored from three yards out.
Following a career-best 41-yard field goal by freshman kicker Maika Kunioka, which gave Linfield a 10-point advantage, the Wildcats’ special teams unit came up huge. Sophomore safety Drew Fisher blocked a St. Thomas punt, which led to a 12-yard pitch-and-catch from Boehme to senior wideout Trevor Patterson.
In the third quarter, St. Thomas capitalized on several big plays by Wartman when sophomore quarterback Dakota Tracy threw a touchdown pass, bringing the score to 24-14.
Later, junior defensive back Kirk Baglien picked off a Boehme pass in the back of the end zone. Later in the Tommies’ drive, Waldvogel sprang loose for a 29-yard touchdown reception, bringing St. Thomas to within four points.
Linfield answered back, however, with a 10-play, 52-yard drive capped off with Lamson’s third rushing touchdown of the contest.
With 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Linfield defense and special teams remained strong. On fourth down and short yardage to go, the Tommies opted for a double reverse that was snuffed out by the Wildcats.
Linfield took over but was forced to punt three minutes later. Waldvogel, however, muffed the kick, and Wildcat sophomore defensive back Nate Dixon recovered the ball at the St. Thomas 36-yard line. Shortly after, Linfield punted again.
Linfield senior linebacker Alex Tkachuk sealed the win when he recovered a fumble by Tracy. After picking up a few first downs, the ’Cats ran out the clock.
The Wildcat defense held the Tommies to 312 total yards on the day while forcing five turnovers. Linfield has the nation’s best turnover ratio at plus-29.
Boehme finished the day with 256 yards on 18-36 passing and one touchdown. Lamson led the ’Cats on the ground with 85 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
“It feels rewarding,” Lamson said. “I knew this was going to be a great season, and I wanted to be as much a part of the team as I could.”
Wartman proved to be one of the lone standouts for St. Thomas, running for 143 yards on 27 carries and one score. Waldvogel hauled in seven catches for a game-high 137 yards.
“They were definitely the biggest team we’ve faced this year,” Boehme said. “There were a few times during the game they confused us and were able to get pressure on me.”
Next, Linfield travels to Whitewater, Wis., to take on UW-Whitewater in the semifinals Dec. 12. The winner will move on to the Stagg Bowl for the national championship, where it will either face Mount Union College or Wesley College on Dec. 19.
“A lot of people may doubt us,” Dixon said. “But we’ve been tested by many good teams this season and won. I think it will be a good game, and I think they are definitely beatable.”