PARKLAND – It's Linfield Week. With those three words, Pacific Lutheran football fans know a great matchup is coming up, as the 11th-ranked Lutes will head down to McMinnville, Ore., for Saturday's rivalry game against the second-ranked Wildcats.
Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday as the undefeated Lutes (3-0) and Wildcats meet on the gridiron for the 64th time in a series that stretches back to 1933. The teams were the class of the NAIA Div. II in the 1980s, combining for five national titles in an eight-year stretch from 1980-87. With the two teams ranked in the Div. III Top 15 for the first time in years, PLU head coach Scott Westering is having flashbacks to that earlier era.
"It's going to be a great game down there," Westering said. "It's their Homecoming, and we anticipate it kind of being like some of the old 'Glory Days,' if you will, back in the '80s and '90s of playing Linfield down there with lots and lots of people there and two great teams battling it out."
Saturday's game could be a playoff preview. The two teams have faced each other six times in the postseason, with each team claiming three victories. Recent history favors Linfield, though, as the Wildcats brought an end to PLU's first postseason appearance since 2001 last season with a 27-24 first-round win in McMinnville.
The Lutes actually outgained Linfield 339-to-249 in that game and nearly overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit before Linfield forced a fourth-down incompletion in the final minute of play with PLU just out of field goal range. Linfield advanced to the Div. III Semifinals before falling to Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and the Wildcats look like a team poised for another deep playoff run this season.
"They've got a great team," Westering said. "They're ranked second in the country, and they deserve to be there."
Linfield has won its first three games this season by an averaging scoring margin of 56-to-11.7. The Wildcats have averaged 165 more rushing yards per game than they have allowed (246.7-to-81.7), and they've nearly doubled their opponents' passing yardage (1,005-to-515). Josh Yoder has completed 67.4 percent of his passes (60-of-89) for 907 yards and eight touchdowns to go with four interceptions.
Three Linfield runners have gained more than 100 yards on the ground, led by Tavon Willis' 181 rushing yards, with Blake Martin just shy of making that a four-player club (96 yards). Brian Balsinger (22 catches for 292 yards) and Charlie Poppen (14/300) lead the receiving corps. Senior linebacker Dominique Forrest leads the defense with 35 tackles, including a team-best eight for-loss.
"They're probably one of the best defenses, if not the best defense, we'll play all year long," Westering said. "Offensively, they're doing all kinds of things. They are looking like the University of Oregon, running a lot of plays and doing things all over the place. They've got some great, talented skill players."
The Lutes are coming off a hard-fought 21-19 road win over Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Pacific Lutheran overcame a massive rainstorm and a fourth-quarter comeback attempt by the Blugolds to clinch the win when the Lutes stopped a two-point conversion attempt and recovered the hosts' onside kick attempt.
"It was another great character growth and win game back there in Wisconsin, along with the other two preseason games that we've had," Westering said. "I think it's been great for our football team to grow through success and adversity in these three tough preseason, non-conference games."
Pacific Lutheran concludes the nonconference portion of its schedule with a 3-0 mark for the second time in three years. Dalton Ritchey has passed for 664 yards and six touchdowns, competing 57.6 percent of his passes (53-of-92) with five interceptions. The junior quarterback has added 152 rushing yards and a pair of scores on the ground. Kyle Warner has a team-high 324 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 18 catches, while Niko Madison has averaged 6.8 yards per carry while running for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
On defense, Jordan Patterson and Sean McFadden have each tallied 23 tackles. Dalton Darmody is right behind with 18 tackles, including a team-best three for-loss, and his two sacks are tied with Joel Anthony and Kyle Bennett for the team lead. The PLU defense has picked off four passes and recovered three fumbles while holding opponents to fewer than 300 yards per game (294.7).
Saturday's game will be the Lutes' biggest test of the young season, as Linfield has won the last four Northwest Conference titles and was picked to win its fifth in a row by the conference coaches. While you can't win a conference title in the first week of the season, a win on Saturday would put the Lutes in the driver's seat toward their first conference crown since they split the 2001 title. They last won the outright title in 1998.
The Lutes will also be looking to wipe away some recent history on Saturday. While the Lutes had a 14-12-1 record against the Wildcats from 1979-2001, Linfield has won all 12 meetings between the teams since 2002. PLU narrowed the gap last season, with the Lutes' two losses to Linfield coming by a combined 10 points.
Pacific Lutheran fans in the Tacoma area can follow the action live from McMinnville by listening to Steve Thomas call the action on KLAY 1180 a.m. Fans can also listen to the broadcast online by following the link on the PLU Athletics website www.golutes.com. Live stats will be available courtesy of Linfield's Athletics website.