It was getting dark at the Pine Bowl as Linfield’s powerful offense orchestrated its final push, igniting a 38-31 overtime win over Whitworth.
The Pirates’ hopes of a second straight Northwest Conference title and playoff berth became even dimmer.
Whitworth’s scoreboard illuminated a field devoid of football lights as teary-eyed players tried to make sense of their heartbreaking loss in what was essentially the Northwest Conference title game.
The Pirates slowed down the 19th-ranked Wildcats (7-1, 6-0), but not when it mattered most.
Quarterback Wyatt Smith – son of highly successful Linfield coach Joseph Smith – rolled left in the extra session, ran near the sideline and lobbed a 2-yard touchdown pass to his brother, Colton Smith, helping one of the winningest NCAA Division III programs lock up its latest conference title.
Whitworth (5-3, 4-2) had an opportunity to answer and send the 4-hour game to a second overtime, but Leif Ericksen’s fourth-down pass to Nick McGill fell incomplete, sending Ericksen to his knees in frustration.
Instead of potential hardware, Whitworth will wrap up its season at next week at Pacific (4-5, 4-2).
“We had a great game plan, and there’s no doubt in my mind that everyone left it all out on the field,” said Whitworth safety Zach Hillman, who had a late interception. “I thought we played well. There’s no reason to hold our heads down.”
The Pirates had a 31-21 cushion in the fourth quarter after Bryce Hornbeck picked off Smith and returned it for a 35-yard touchdown.
Linfield’s offense, which averages 499 yards and 49 points a game, put up 21 points in the first quarter before being held scoreless the next two quarters.
The nation’s second-leading passer, Smith, who had three interceptions going into the game, was picked off three times.
But Linfield came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring the game’s final 17 points. Its game-tying drive was boosted by a 46-yard pass to Jacob Calo, and an extra 10 yards were tacked onto the big play due to a roughing the passer call.
“We had a lot of highs and lows, and Whitworth is a great team,’ said Smith, who completed 41 of 60 passes for for 425 yards and five touchdowns. “Our defense stepped up big for us and kept giving up chances.
Whitworth went scoreless on its final five drives.
“We saw some things we didn’t expect to see, but found ways to attack them,” Ericksen said. “We had chances. They had chances. But they just made a few more plays.”
Ericksen completed 28 of 52 passes for 280 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Whitworth was held to 61 yards rushing.
Whitworth knotted the game at 21 in the second quarter with trickery, a 20-yard reverse pass from receiver McGill to Taylor Hall. McGill also hauled in a 46-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
Linfield was on the goal line in the final seconds of the first half, but Whitworth stuffed with Wildcats as the clock expired.
Noah Alejado’s 41-yard field goal gave Whitworth its first lead of the second half.
Linebacker Iain Black had a game-high 18 tackles for Whitworth.
“That was a Northwest Conference championship game, and we knew it was going to be a championship fight,” Ericksen said. “We have one more game left, so we have to respond well. Our season isn’t over yet.”
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