SPOKANE, Wash. – Quarterback Mickey Inns passed for a career-high 344 yards and five touchdowns, sparking the fifth-ranked Linfield Wildcats to a 42-38 come-from-behind Northwest Conference victory over the Whitworth Pirates Saturday at the Pine Bowl.
The unbeaten Wildcats (8-0, 5-0 NWC) clinched a share of the program’s third straight and 35th all-time conference championship, but had to fend off an upset-minded Whitworth squad in the game’s late stages. Whitworth quarterback Bryan Peterson also passed for five scores and 274 yards as the underdog Pirates gave the Wildcats more than they expected on a sunny yet brisk November day.
Forced to play from behind in the second half for the first time this season, Linfield opened up the playbook and the result was 28 unanswered points.
The scoring surge put the ‘Cats in front by 17 in the fourth quarter, but it was four missed extra points – including three blocks – that provided the margin of victory. Whitworth, which had won two straight games after a 1-4 start, dropped to 3-5 overall and 2-3 conference play.
The Wildcats allowed a season-high 38 points and 422 yards but needed to shake off a myriad of mistakes to prevail in a game it had to have.
Six penalties, a missed fourth-down opportunity, a pair of fumbles, and a field goal attempt that hit the upright highlighted a sloppy first half for the Wildcats, who found themselves trailing at intermission for the first time this season.
Whitworth led 25-14 at the break, outgaining Linfield 209-187 through the first two periods. Freshman receiver Austin Ehlo caught three first-half touchdowns from Peterson and ended with seven catches for 88 yards.
After the Wildcats had forced the Pirates’ opening drive to stall, Drew Fisher fumbled Ehlo’s punt at the Linfield 20. Aaron Cochran recovered and five plays later Whitworth was in the end zone. Peterson passed five yards to Ehlo for the touchdown, but Linfield’s Tyler Robitaille blocked the extra point and the score remained 6-0.
Linfield wasted little time in getting the touchdown back, evening the game on a 5-yard run by Josh Hill. The extra point by Josh Kay gave Linfield a 7-6 lead with 7:11 left in the first quarter.
The Pirates answered as Peterson marched the hosts 46 yards in seven plays, capping the drive with Kasey Lambert’s 6-yard dash. The extra point attempt failed and Whitworth clung to a 12-6 advantage.
A sack and two incomplete passes forced Linfield to punt and Whitworth again went on the march, driving 83 yards and finishing with Ehlo’s 39-yard snag from Peterson with 10:37 left in the second period. The PAT by McNealley’s put the Pirates in command, 19-7.
Linfield looked poised to respond, moving the ball to the Whitworth 6-yard line following a 39-yard catch-and-run by Deidre Wiersma. But quarterback Mickey Inns fumbled the snap and Fernando Noriega pounced on the loose ball. After another Pirates punt, the Wildcats pulled within five, 19-14, when Inns found tight end Jacob Priester for a 3-yard scoring play.
A long 48-yard field goa attempt by Kayl to end the half hit the left upright and bounced away.
Following intermission, Linfield put the pedal to the metal, scoring the next 28 points. Inns passed for four touchdowns during a 19-minute span, reviving the favored Wildcats from a nine-point deficit to take a 42-25 lead.
Linfield had the chance to salt the game away with 7½ minutes to play. The Wildcats stuffed the Pirates on fourth down at the Linfield 20, but the Pirates found new life when Stephen Nasca fumbled on the next play.
Peterson then passed 21 yards to Kekoa Turbeville for a touchdown to cut the margin to 42-32 with 5:33 left and halfback Ronnie Thomas bolted 78 yards for another touchdown with 3:24 to play. Kole Krieger blocked McNeally’s extra point attempt, keeping the game a two-score affair.
Hill rushed 20 times for 77 yards. Nasca added 32 yards rushing on four carries.
Inns completed 23 of 39 attempts with one interception. Seven different Wildcat receivers caught at least two passes, including four by Hill and Lucas Jepson, and three each by Wiersma, Buddy Saxon and Evan Peterson (Sr., Bellevue, Wash.).
Linfield linebacker Dominique Forrest was credited with a game-high nine tackles while tackle Tyler Steele had eight stops, including a 5-yard sack. End Michael MacClanathan recorded three sacks totaling 15 yards in losses off the bench.
‘CAT SCRATCH: Temperature at kickoff was 34 degrees. . . the Wildcats extended their conference win streak to 19 games. . . Linfield defeated Whitworth for the fourth consecutive time in the series. . . Fisher racked up 124 punt returns yards, six shy of surpassing the Linfield single-game record of 129 set by Amancio Agcaoili against Southern Oregon in 1995. . . in addition to Krieger’s game-saving block, Tyler Robitaille thwarted two extra points attempts in the first half. . . Linfield converted just 5-of-14 third-down plays. . . the 'Cats totaled five sacks on the day, raising their NCAA Division III-leading total to 39. . . Saturday's attendance was 1,675. . . punter Jordan Walker averaged 40.8 yards on six punts.
NEXT: The Wildcats return to Maxwell Field to face Lewis & Clark (7-1, 4-1 NWC) in the annual AT&T Hall of Fame Game. The winner receives the NWC's automatic berth to the the NCAA playoffs, which begin Nov. 19. A Linfield victory would clinch the title and playoff berth outright. Whitworth visits Puget Sound to conclude its season.