For the second consecutive week, the Linfield Wildcat football program found itself comfortably ahead at halftime of an NCAA Division-III playoff game. For the second consecutive week, their opponent found a way back into the game.
This time, however, there would be no heroic ending. The Wesley College Wolverines stormed back from a 20-point halftime deficit and rattled off 42 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 49-34 victory that ended Linfield’s playoff run.
Quarterback Shane McSweeny almost single-handedly won the game for Wesley, accounting for 433 of his team’s 497 yards of offense and six total touchdowns.
“I’ve never seen or been a part of 42 unanswered points, and for this to happen in the playoffs,
was even more heart breaking,” senior safety Drew Fisher said. “Wesley had some big dudes and some guys that could really play ball.”
Through two quarters of play, everything was going right for the ’Cats. The tough Linfield defense harassed McSweeny, forcing him out of the pocket and sacking him twice, as well as creating an interception by junior linebacker Brian Dundas in the second quarter.
Additionally, the defense repeatedly tackled McSweeny and other Wesley ball carriers for lost yardage.
Wesley would score once in the second quarter on a 46-yard dash by McSweeny, but still only picked up a meager 181 yards of total offense in the first half.
“Everything was working for us in the first half,” Fisher said. “We tackled well, made plays on the ball, and forced quick punts from the Wesley offense which kept the momentum in our favor.”
Two short field goals of 26 and 27 yards by junior kicker Josh Kay got the scoring started early before junior quarterback Mickey Inns began to light up the Wolverine defense.
After breaking open one big play after another, including a shovel pass to junior tailback Josh Hill that went for 42 yards and a 45 yard catch-and-run down the sideline by senior tailback Aaron Williams, Inns fired touchdown passes of one and 33 yards to senior and junior receivers Buddy Saxon and Lucas Jepson.
Overall, Inns would accrue 296 yards through the air in the first half alone. All these factors combined with a six-yard scoring run by Hill to create a 27-7 halftime margin.
“We were extremely well prepared and were ready to play,” senior center Hayden Mace said. “Our coaching staff had a great plan of attack, and we executed it well in the first half.”
With a 20-point advantage and receiving the ball to begin the second half, everything seemed to be going in favor of the ’Cats.
Within seconds of starting the half, things began to go awry, with sophomore safety Colin Forman fumbling away the opening kickoff to the Wolverines on his own 28-yard line.
McSweeny wasted little time and capitalized a few minutes later on a 15-yard scoring strike.
After Fisher stripped a Wesley receiver and senior cornerback Taylor Skore recovered, Inns marched the ’Cats deep into the Wesley territory, only to have a pass intercepted on the one-yard line and returned 99 yards for a touchdown.
“They took hold of the momentum and it was hard to create our own,” Mace said. “Every phase was slipping, and the offense wasn’t able to help stop the bleeding.”
From that point on, McSweeny and the Wolverines never looked back, scoring on their next four consecutive possessions to take a commanding 49-27 lead. The Wildcats would score once more to bring the score back to a respectable margin, but in garbage time after the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Wesley’s defensive unit stepped up to complement their prolific offense, holding the ’Cats to 153 second-half yards.
The loss overshadowed a heroic performance by Inns, who finished with a career-high 407 passing yards. The collapse ensured Linfield was headed home after a road playoff game for the third season in a row.
“Wesley has a great team, a top-five defense with excellent athletes,” Mace said. “We had them on the ropes and should’ve knocked them out.”
The game marked the end of the careers of 20 different Linfield seniors, many of whom were three or four-year starters.
Mace said the bonds he made with his teammates and coaches were unlike anything he’d ever been a part of and was severely disappointed to end his career on a note like this.
Fisher added that his times on the field would be among the greatest in his life, but more importantly, the friends he made would stick around forever.
He also had something to say about the future of the program after the departure of the seniors.
“Mickey played a huge role in answering any questions about our offense this season. Josh Hill brought the running game back to Linfield,” Fisher said. “I think the stones are set in place for another exciting season from the ‘Cats next year.”
Chris Forrer/Sports columnist
Chris Forrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.