Linfield forces seven turnovers to advance to national quarterfinals
McMINNVILLE, Ore. -- Outgained but not outplayed, Linfield turned away North Central (Ill.), producing seven turnovers on the way to a 30-14 victory in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs on Saturday at Maxwell Field.
Cornerback Michael Link intercepted a pair of passes inside Linfield territory, Dominique Forrest returned another pass 73 yards for a touchdown, and the Wildcats withstood a 192-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance by North Central’s Nick Kukuc.
Linfield (11-0), representing the Northwest Conference, advances to a Dec. 1 quarterfinal matchup against Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which defeated Bethel.
North Central (8-3), tri-champion of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, saw its season come to a close. While reaching the national quarterfinals for the fifth time in 10 seasons, Linfield extended its home winning streak to 25 games.
Wildcats quarterback Mickey Inns passed for 305 yards and two scores, and though he completed 24 of 39 throws, the senior was sacked four times by a Cardinals defense that surrendered just 331 total yards. Lucas Jepson caught a game-high eight passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.
The Cardinals appeared to take a 3-0 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter, but the NCC bench called timeout just as the ball was about to leave kicker Nick Dace’s foot. As play resumed, Dace’s 37-yard attempt was wide left and the game remained scoreless.
Linfield fed off the early momentum, marching 80 yards in nine plays for the game’s first points. Inns hit Charlie Poppen for a 17-yard strike to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead with 14:22 left in the second quarter.
Linfield’s defense accounted for the next score on the Cardinals’ ensuing possession. On fourth-and-2 from the Linfield 31, NCC quarterback Spencer Stanek was intercepted by Forrest, who returned the errant throw 73 yards for a touchdown.
The Cardinals’ turnover woes were just beginning. Michael MacClanathan recovered a bad snap at the NCC 39, giving the Wildcats their best starting field position of the half. When the drive stalled, Kay trotted out for a 44-yard field goal that pushed Linfield out in front 17-0.
North Central advanced the ball to the Linfield 3, aided by a 43-yard throw down the right sideline to Nick Kukuc, but Stanek fumbled a handoff and Brynnan Hyland recovered at the 6.
Kukuc had 105 yards by halftime and the Cardinals controlled the ball for nearly 20 minutes of the first half. NCC outgained Linfield 208-152 during the opening two periods.
Midway through the third quarter, Brandon Funk intercepted Stanek at the Linfield 36 and two plays later, Inns stepped away from pressure in the pocket and found Jepson streaking down sideline for a 64-yard touchdown.
Stanek committed NCC’s fifth turnover of the afternoon on the ensuing drive and the Wildcats again turned the miscue into points. An eight-play, 53-yard drive was capped off by Chad Coburn’s 4-yard weave into the end zone. Kay’s extra point was blocked but the ‘Cats still enjoyed a 30-0 advantage.
Kukuc finally broke free with 2:32 to go in the third quarter, avoiding two tackles on the way to a 32-yard touchdown. Kukuc again found his way into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter, pounding 15 yards for the score to cut the margin to 30-14.
A personal foul penalty after Linfield had stopped the Cardinals on third down at midfield kept a drive alive. Facing third-and-10 from the Linfield 29, Stanek’s deep pass into the end zone was batted away by Link in the back of the end zone. A fourth-down pass was picked off by Link at the Linfield 12, silencing a 12-play drive.
NCC outgained Linfield 416-331 for the game, including a 181-26 disparity in the rushing column. But seven turnovers, including five interceptions by Stanek, proved to be the Cardinals’ undoing.
Forrest led all tacklers with 12 stops, including six unassisted. Kyle Wright contributed seven tackles, two of which were for loss. Link produced six tackles and three pass breakups to go with his two interceptions. Linebacker Quinn Haas paced the North Central defense with 10 tackles, including two sacks and a fumble recovery.