They’ve been champions of the Northwest Conference for 11 of the past 12 seasons, so there is definitely an aura about them.
Call it Linevitability.
And the Linfield Wildcats managed to wring out every last drop in their Saturday’s showdown with Whitworth, scoring on all four second-half possessions in a 35-17 victory in front of a homecoming crowd of 2,317 at the Pine Bowl.
In his third year as a starter on the Wildcats’ offensive line, Julien Sears has had a front-row seat to the feeling.
“Whitworth’s a super-good team, but I think we just stick with it and keep pushing through, going through the adversity,” the senior Division III All-American from University High School said. “We love close games.”
Adversity? Close game?
Well, yes, the Pirates dished up a little of both.
The Wildcats, 4-0 and ranked seventh in the D3football.com poll, managed just a 7-3 halftime lead, having one threat snuffed on the Pirates’ 2-yard line when Whitworth’s Lindon Sevilleja cut down running back Connor McNabb.
That was the adversity. What happened before could have been disaster. After the Pirates opened with a 30-yard Alvaro Campos-Ontiveros field goal, the Wildcats’ Paul Thie made two huge gaffes – fumbling the ensuing kickoff that the Pirates’ Zach Loveless pounced on, and then muffing a punt that Kenyon Coleman recovered.
Except Whitworth’s yield from this bounty – possession at the Linfield 34 and 23 – was zero. Two major penalties wiped out the first chance, and Campos-Ontiveros was wide on a 41-yard field goal on the second.
“Against a team that good, you’ve got to take advantage of our opportunities and we didn’t,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said.
Because there’s that inevitability factor.
With the ball to start the second half, the Wildcats overcame an early sack by Dylan Ventress to go 81 yards in six plays – most of it on two long pass plays to standout receiver Joel Valadez, the second a 37-yarder when he got matched against a linebacker on a Whitworth blitz that didn’t get home.
There was more of that – Valadez scoring again on a 41-yard throw from quarterback Blake Eaton, and third-string running back Tyler Larson finishing things off with a 40-yard scoring burst up the middle.
Eaton, a sophomore who completed just a single pass in 2021, was something of a surprise in emerging this fall as the successor to two-time NWC Offensive Player of the Year Wyatt Smith.
“We’ve just been believing in him,” Sears said. “He’s a great leader and he’s got all the weapons.”
And he’s a quick study. On Saturday, he completed 26 of 35 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
“In game five, you’re not new anymore and he played very well,” Sandberg said. “He found the right guy on the blitz, and later we had a had a man-under two-deep and didn’t pressure, and he found the one matchup where you don’t have safety help. He threw some great balls.”
Whitworth quarterback Ryan Blair – also in just his fourth start – had his moments, as well. He threw two pretty fades for second-half touchdowns to slot Riley Morrison and tight end Isaac Fields, and completed 24 of 36 attempts. But the Wildcats did well to take away deep routes and crashed through for four sacks – three by freshman linebacker Blaze Holani.
Linfield and Whitworth (3-2) were picked 1-2 in the NWC preseason coaches’ poll – the Pirates being the only other team in the past decade to win a conference title.
“It’s a tough one, but we have five games left, so let’s go 5-0,” Sandberg said. “They’re games we can win, and we love the challenge of it.”
The Wildcats reached the D-III quarterfinals a year ago, and have higher ambitions.
“I think the potential for us,” Sears said, “is through the roof.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.