PARKLAND – The top two programs in Pacific Northwest small college football over the past 35 years find themselves in a familiar position this week as Linfield and Pacific Lutheran will line up on the gridiron Saturday at Maxwell Field in an NCAA Div. III Football Championship first-round matchup.
Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. as two teams that have combined for six NAIA and two NCAA Div. III national championship in the past 35 years square off in the postseason for the seventh time. Pacific Lutheran closed out the 2013 regular with an 8-1 overall record, the Lutes' lone loss coming against Linfield (9-0), which won its fifth straight Northwest Conference title.
Visitors section reserved tickets are available for purchase through the Linfield Athletics website, with tickets held at the stadium's will call for Saturday morning pickup beginning when the gates open at 10 a.m. General admission tickets will be available on game day, on a cash-only basis, beginning at 10 a.m.
"It's got all the makings for a great college football game," PLU head coach Scott Westering said. "It's a great challenge for us. They're a great team."
While Linfield, ranked second in the d3football.com national poll and third in the AFCA poll, clinched the conference's automatic berth in the 32-team national playoffs, the Lutes had to wait for the NCAA's announcement of the postseason bracket on Sunday to learn that they had received their second consecutive at-large bid.
Saturday's game will be the fourth meeting between the teams in the past two seasons, as Linfield defeated PLU 27-24 in an NCAA first-round matchup last year. PLU out-gained Linfield 339-to-249 in last year's playoff matchup, but the Lutes turned the ball over five times and ran out of time late as they tried to drive downfield to tie the game or take the lead. Linfield defeated PLU 31-24 in the 2012 regular-season matchup, and the Wildcats scored 22 fourth-quarter points in last month's 29-0 win over PLU as the Lutes again finished with five turnovers.
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. Three times during that stretch they met in postseason play, with the Lutes claiming two wins over Linfield. The first postseason matchup between the teams came in 1980, when PLU defeated Linfield 35-20 in a first-round matchup en route to the Lutes' first national title.
Linfield defeated PLU in the playoffs for the first time during the 1986 season, knocking off the Lutes 27-21 in overtime as the Wildcats went on to win the national title that season. PLU won a 1991 second-round matchup, 23-0, but Linfield bounced back the following year to defeat the Lutes 44-30. That was the teams' final playoff meeting for 20 years until last season.
Twenty Pacific Lutheran players received postseason all-conference honors, including six first-teamers. Niko Madison led the NWC in rushing to give PLU its first rushing champion since Anthony Hicks in 1998. Kyle Warner and Tevon Stephens-Brown joined Madison on the first-team offense, while Mychael Tuiasosopo, Jordan Patterson and Sean McFadden earned first-team defense honors for the Lutes.
PLU boasts a balanced offense that averages 212.6 yards per game through the air and 178.2 on the ground. Dalton Ritchey has thrown for 1,913 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for another 535 yards and 10 scores. Madison has 750 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and Warner has snagged 48 receptions for 804 yards and eight scores.
On defense, Patterson boasts a team-high 72 tackles and 15.5 for loss to go with four sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. McFadden has 55 tackles and three interceptions, while Joel Anthony has tallied an NWC-leading nine sacks this season.
As impressive as PLU's season has been, Linfield has been nearly unstoppable all season. The Wildcats have scored 495 points for an average of 55 per game, while giving up only 99 all season (average of 11 per game). They average 500.3 yards per game and 6.8 per play while limiting opponents to only 238.2 yards per game and 3.5 per play.
"They've got one of the better defenses that's played there in a lot of years, and they've got a real special quarterback in Josh Yoder, who was the Offensive Player of the Year," Westering said.
Yoder threw for 1,866 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season and ran for 566 and 14 scores to lead Linfield and earn NWC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Josh Hill rushed for another 532 yards and 13 scores, and four different players caught at least two touchdown passes while seven tallied at least 100 receiving yards.
Dom Forrest was named NWC Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Wildcats with 68 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and four sacks and two forced fumbles. The Linfield defense forced 26 turnovers this season, while the offense only turned the ball over eight times.
Saturday's game will give the Lutes a chance to end a 13-game losing streak against Linfield. While the Lutes went 14-13-1 against the Wildcats from 1979 through 2001, PLU has not defeated Linfield since then. That is something the Lutes will have to change if they want to take the next step and extend their season further into the playoffs.
"It presents a great challenge for us," Westering said. "I know our guys, though, are really excited. The greater the challenge, the greater it challenges us to see what kind of team we really are."