Sidestepping several costly injuries as if they were would-be tacklers, the Linfield Wildcats very nearly ran the distance to the NCAA title game, but a championship-caliber season was brought to a sudden halt in overtime of the Division III quarterfinals.
Losing arguably their top offensive and defensive players to serious injuries three weeks into the season, the third-ranked Wildcats refused to make excuses. The ‘Cats reeled off 11 straight victories before colliding in the quarterfinals with fifth-rated Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The battle of unbeaten teams at Maxwell Field lived up to its billing, though Linfield players, coaches and fans left the field in disbelief after UW-Oshkosh shocked Linfield 31-24 in overtime.
Linfield not only achieved the program’s 57th consecutive winning season to extend its own all-divisions record, but the team’s graduating class celebrated a fourth straight Northwest Conference title. The Wildcats led Division III with 64 quarterback sacks while topping NWC statistics in scoring offense (40.3 points per game), scoring defense (17.9) and total defense (300.7 yards). The season included nail-biting victories over a trio of Top 25 programs: No. 10 Cal Lutheran (33-30), 20th-ranked Pacific Lutheran (27-24) and No. 14 North Central of Illinois (30-14).
“I could not be more proud of how our team invested itself emotionally, mentally and physically,” said seventh-year coach Joseph Smith. “There was more adversity and change for our guys to deal with than most any year I can remember. We embraced that and worked every day to improve.”
Linfield faced a daunting early schedule that began Labor Day weekend with a 30-9 win over a dangerous Menlo squad. The Wildcats went on to pick up a 49-35 home field win over Hardin-Simmons of the rugged American Southwest Conference, and Cal Lutheran, the reigning Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“Getting through those first three games undefeated was a preliminary goal,” said Smith, who earned his 60th career victory against just 14 defeats. “We accomplished that at a high cost, losing two of our best players for the season and injuring several others. At that point, guys continued to step up and fill the voids throughout the remainder of the season.”
The Wildcats’ next big hurdle came against a high-powered Willamette team, which had been enjoying one of its best seasons in recent years. Brynnan Hyland riddled Willamette with three sacks and the Wildcats returned a blocked punt for a touchdown on the way to a 45-10 rout of the Bearcats.
“The dominating way in which we beat Willamette proved to ourselves that we were still a title-contending team,” said Smith. “I believe we began to see what we were truly capable of at that point.”
After completing an unbeaten regular season for the third time in four years, the Wildcats owned home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In the first round of the NCAA playoffs, the Wildcats had to hold off a fierce rally by Pacific Lutheran before prevailing 27-24. Linfield then put together a great all-around effort to eliminate North Central in the second round of the playoffs.
“North Central was one of the more talented football teams I have seen and we were able to beat them handily,” said Smith. “Going toe-to-toe with the WIAC champion (Wisconsin-Oshkosh) and having multiple chances to win also shows just how good this team was.”
In all, Linfield successfully battled from behind to win five times in 2012, a testament to the Wildcats’ mental toughness and physical fortitude.
“Our team this year had a tremendous amount of fight in it. They were extremely competitive and were often at their best when put on edge with any form of the varied adversity they faced this year,” said Smith. “I’m extremely proud of the competitive spirit we played with. The cohesion across all positions and sides of the ball also led to a very tight team that truly believed in, and counted upon, one another.”
Linfield’s physical style of play did result in a high number of casualties, and over the course of a long season, the losses began to add up.
“The attrition we experienced in the first three rounds of the playoffs would have put us at a disadvantage heading into the semifinals,” Smith said. “I believe this team would have competed well in the semifinals and the finals.”
Quarterback Mickey Inns, who was honored as NWC Offensive Player of the Year, was a driving force during the Wildcats’ outstanding season. Inns passed for 3,288 yards and 30 touchdowns. Deidre Wiersma caught a team-high 62 passes for 710 yards and eight touchdowns while Charlie Poppen grabbed 57 balls for 909 yards and nine TDs.
Defensively, linebacker Dominque Forrest led the Wildcats with 79 total tackles to go along with four interceptions and three sacks. Forrest was named the NWC and West Region Defensive Player of the Year. Hyland finished the season with 19 sacks for 105 yards in losses.
Fifteen Wildcats were recognized on the NWC all-star team. Smith was appointed NWC Coach of the Year for the fourth consecutive season.