Head football coach Joseph Smith didn’t expect to see a team as tough and talented as California Lutheran University until at least the second round of the NCAA Division-III playoffs.
After his team’s thrilling victory over the Kingsmen on Nov. 19, every fan in attendance at Maxwell Field could have told you why. Junior defensive tackle Tyler Steele blocked a desperation field goal that would have sent the game to overtime with 33 seconds left and the ’Cats withstood a furious second-half rally to eke out a 30-27 win in the rematch against CLU.
“I firmly expected a tough game,” Smith said. “I felt like we had a chance to put it away and didn’t with a lot of our opportunities in the first half.”
For nearly the entire first half of play, the game seemed to be well in hand for Linfield. Junior
kicker Josh Kay led the charge early as the offense faltered in the red zone, booting field goals of 30 and 43 yards. Cal Lu added a shaky 40-yard field goal of its own to keep it close in the first quarter, but junior quarterback Mickey Inns added two scoring strikes of 13 and eight yards to senior receiver Buddy Saxon and junior receiver Deidre Wiersma in the second quarter to pull away at 20-3. The Wildcat defense did its part, picking off two passes by Kingsmen quarterback Jordan Laudenslayer thanks to senior cornerback and safety Christian Hanna and Drew Fisher.
“When we get put in a situation to get out there and make a stop, it’s on our shoulders,” Fisher said. “It’s exciting, and it’s what you play for.”
Just before the half ended, the Wildcats drew a controversial pass interference penalty that drew the ire of the Maxwell Field crowd. On the next play, Kingsmen quarterback Jordan Laudenslayer hit receiver Eric Rogers on a desperation touchdown pass as time expired and robbed Linfield of any momentum heading into halftime.
“The hail-Mary touchdown made it a different game,” Smith said. “But the team in the playoffs who adjusts and gets it done in the crisis situations wins.”
The Cal Lutheran surge continued into the third quarter, with the Kingsmen adding another 20-yard field goal on their opening drive.
Kay continued his strong play by knocking a 43-yard attempt straight through the uprights, but Laudenslayer scooted into the end zone to answer with a five-yard touchdown run.
The Kingsmen quarterback tormented the Linfield defense all afternoon, making plays with his arms (249 yards, one touchdown) and his feet (83 yards, one touchdown).
“They were doing some things differently than last time,” Inns said. “That’s what happens when you play a team more than once.”
Up only three points, junior tailback Josh Hill scored on a 14-yard screen pass from Inns to give the Wildcats some breathing room. Hill, who had a career game against Cal Lutheran in the season-opener, rolled up 172 all-purpose yards and carried the bulk of the offensive load throughout the contest.
Smith said the result was a team effort, but did praise Hill for stepping up when his number was called.
“Josh is an electric player,” Smith said. “He was the guy who we win or lose with today, and he came through.”
Shortly after the score, a pass by Inns was tipped, intercepted and returned for a touchdown to pull the Kingsmen within three once again.
After a Wildcat three-and-out, the Kingsmen drove for a field goal try to tie the game. Then, Steele rose above the pile and squarely blocked the kick, preventing overtime and preserving the victory.
“I hit the right guard square in the nose and drove him back,” Steele said. “You throw up anything you’ve got free, I threw up my left arm and it hit right on my left hand.”
The ’Cats were next slated to travel to Dover, Del., to face the Wesley College Wolverines in the second round of the D-III playoffs. Wesley, an independent that went 8-1 in the regular season, has advanced to the
national semifinals six of the past seven seasons and will pose a stiff road test for the Linfield Wildcats.
Smith said that he was stunned at the loaded quadrant of the bracket his team was placed in, but that no matter who the opponent is, the players and coaching staff relish the challenge.
“For them [the NCAA] to load a bracket like they did is really not right,” Smith said. “There are some roads easier to the semifinals than others and our bracket is not one of them.”
Chris Forrer/Sports columnist
Chris Forrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.