Besides improving their record to 7-1, the victory also secured Linfield its second consecutive Northwest Conference championship. In other words, the Wildcat squad is playoff bound once again.
“We have the automatic qualifying bid from the NWC, so we’re into the playoffs,” head football coach Joseph Smith said. “Now it’s a matter of seeding, [it’s] and out of our hands, so we can’t worry about that.”
The Wildcats got a lucky break early when Whitworth junior kick returner Cailen Thomason coughed up the opening kickoff and freshman linebacker Lou Colasuardo fell on the loose ball. Senior quarterback Aaron Boehme and the offense quickly went to work, and Boehme knifed into the end zone on a 9-yard run to stake the ’Cats to an early 7-0 lead.
The Whitworth Pirates immediately answered on the following drive as sophomore quarterback Taylor Eglet ripped open deep throws of 19, 16 and 17 yards before lobbing a 3-yard scoring pass to freshman Wade Meyer to even the score at 7-7.
“Statistically, the defense gave up quite a bit of yards in the first half, as well as those 17 points,” sophomore safety Drew Fisher said. “They executed well on a number of plays.”
For the remainder of the first quarter, the teams remained silent offensively, accumulating only a mere 109 combined yards. Linfield found a spark early in the second quarter when Boehme orchestrated a short 55-yard drive and capped it with an 11-yard shot to senior receiver Chris Slezak. For the rest of the quarter, the offense continued to falter, most significantly during a series in which Boehme threw three consecutive incompletions, causing a turnover on downs.
“They [Whitworth] gave us some looks that we hadn’t really seen and weren’t expecting,” Boehme said. “That threw us a little off-kilter for a bit, and we just didn’t execute as well as we could have.”
Eglet and the Pirates immediately answered to Boehme’s touchdown throw by slashing open the Wildcat secondary for a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
The defense had a few bright moments in the second quarter, including a blocked field goal attempt by senior defensive end Eric Hedin. It was recovered by Fisher and held the final Whitworth drive of the half to a 26-yard field goal, but overall he had several problems with execution.
“Football is a game of inches, and unfortunately we were out of alignment and a hair off of knocking a few balls down that could have resulted in a better outcome,” Fisher said. “The secondary wasn’t making plays when needed, the line wasn’t getting pressure on the quarterback, and our backers weren’t in the best position in their zone coverage.”
The coaching staff didn’t get angry at the team in the locker room at halftime, Smith said, but instead made a few adjustments to the defensive schematic and, most importantly, encouraged them to start having some fun.
The words must have hit home because the ’Cats came out of the gate in the second half with fully bared claws.
“Really it was just touching up what we were assigned to do, like being in better position in coverage and playing faster,” Fisher said. “And they told us to start having more fun. It sucks to be losing at halftime, but we needed to create an enthusiasm that would carry us and get us going.”
On the half’s opening drive, Boehme and senior tailback Simon Lamson burned up the turf on a 65-yard drive that took less than 3 minutes, punctuated by a 26-yard Boehme sprint into the end zone. During Linfield’s next drive, Boehme found junior receiver Buddy Saxon wide open in the middle of the field for a pickup of 69 yards that nearly went the distance for a score. Boehme took it in himself on fourth and goal moments later.
Then, after another dominating series by the defense, Lamson broke multiple tackles and bulled his way into the end zone again.
In only 13 minutes, the Wildcats found themselves up 35-17.
“We got a little fired up,” Boehme said. “We were tired of playing like crud, so we sucked it up and started really playing as a unit.”
The final nail in the Pirates’ coffin came as Eglet was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage trying to scramble and lost the ball. Hedin scooped it up and returned it 7 yards to the Whitworth 3-yard line. Boehme tossed a 3-yard pass to Saxon to finish the day’s scoring at 42-17.
Boehme ended up collecting 259 all-purpose yards and five total touchdowns with no turnovers, and Hedin is now one sack away from tying the single-season record for total sacks. The pair earned NWC player of the week honors for offense and defense, respectively.
With a playoff berth already secured, the ’Cats must wait for the NCAA to decide playoff seeding on Nov. 14 before learning its opponent.
But first, Linfield travels to Lewis & Clark College for its final regular-season game at 1 p.m. on Nov. 13.
The Pioneers are having a tremendously improved season on offense and could pose problems for the Wildcat defense, especially with their prolific freshman quarterback Keith Welch.
Chris Forrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.