By Ben • Ben Schorzman • 

On to the next round

Like it has been so many times this year, Linfield’s defense was the star in its 27-24 win Saturday vs. Pacific Lutheran in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

The Wildcats forced five turnovers and held when they needed to most, and they move on to play at noon Saturday at home vs. North Central (Ill.) in the second round.

“I’m very proud of how our guys responded,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said, “and I loved how our defense played.”

On a day when the Wildcats struggled on offense (Pacific Lutheran outgained Linfield 339-249), they needed the defense to hold strong. The Lutes had the ball for 11 more minutes than Linfield in the second half, but the ’Cats were able to do just enough.

“Today was a little frustrating on offense,” said Linfield quarterback Mickey Inns, who threw for 210 yards. Inns was intercepted for the first time since Linfield’s last game vs. the Lutes in September, and he didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. “But each side has the mentality that they’re going to have to win the game, and the defense stepped up big time and took over that game.”

Linfield’s two biggest defensive stands came in the fourth quarter. The Lutes had cut Linfield’s lead to 20-17 after a field goal by Jacob Schrader late in the third quarter. The Wildcats drove to the Lutes’ 5-yard line, but Evan Peterson fumbled after catching a pass from Inns, and Pacific Lutheran recovered. On the Lutes’ first play, Linfield linebacker Tyler Robitaille stepped in front of a Dalton Ritchey pass and walked into the end zone for the pick six.

“I was surprised,” said Robitaille, who finished with six tackles including a forced fumble. “I just jumped it and ran it into the end zone.”

The defense came up big on the Lutes’ final drive of the game as well. Ritchey scored with 5:25 on a 13-yard run on fourth-and-inches to cut the lead to 27-24, and Pacific Lutheran’s defense forced Linfield to punt, setting up one final possession. The Lutes took over at their own 22-yard line with 1:33 left in the game.

On the first play, Mike Maierhofer sacked Ritchey for a 13-yard loss. A couple plays later Ritchey hit Daniel Herr for 21 yards to the Linfield 41, but Brian Dundas sacked Ritchey again, and on fourth-and-16 Ritchey’s pass was behind receiver Kyle Warner.

The Wildcats recovered three fumbles and Dominique Forrest also intercepted a Ritchey pass. Ritchey was sacked six times.

“The defensive line got great pressure on Ritchey,” Forrest said. “It’s been the same thing all year. The D line gets pressure and the quarterback makes some iffy throws. Props to those guys.”

It took a while for Linfield’s offense to find the end zone, but it did so twice in the second quarter. Kicker Josh Kay scored Linfield’s first six points, kicking 47- and 42-yard field goals, but two Pacific Lutheran turnovers gave Linfield good field position, and Chad Coburn scored twice on short runs.

Linfield also struggled with turnovers, fumbling twice. Smith tried to take some of the credit for the offensive struggles, saying he handcuffed Inns a bit with his play calling, but the Lutes’ pressure was more of a factor.

“That’s a good defense with a lot of good athletes,” Inns said. “I’m proud of the way we battled on offense. We just have to fix some ball security and poor decisions by me.”

Notes: Ritchey threw for 284 yards and one touchdown for PLU. ... Warner caught 12 passes for 205 yards.


Next up

Linfield’s next opponent, North Central of Illinois, beat Cal Lutheran 41-21 in Thousand Oaks, Calif. in the first round.

“It will be fun to play somebody new,” Smith said. “I know that’s something the whole team is excited for. It’s hard to beat the same team twice.”

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