Friday, August 24, 2012

The Top Ten Plays of the Past Ten Years: Plays 7-4

Let's skip the lead-in and just get to the goods.

2003 Linfield at Southern Oregon: Ty Mathews to George Carter....For The Win!

At the end of the 2002 season both Linfield and Southern Oregon had outstanding seasons in their respective divisions (Linfield - Division 3, SOU - NAIA).  Linfield finished the regular season 9-0 and won their first NCAA Playoff game before falling at the 'Catdome to Saint John's University (21-14) to finish up the season 10-1.  Southern Oregon also won their opening round NAIA playoff game and went back to Carroll College for the quarterfinal match-up.  Like the year before (2001), the Raiders let another late lead slip away to the Saints as Carroll rallied and beat SOU 35-31 on Carroll's way to another NAIA title.  The loss left SOU stunned and angry.

During the 2003 summer, the Raiders had a scheduling quirk and didn't open up their season until September 20th as they would host the 'Cats in Raider Stadium.  That late start played in the Raiders favor as down in Southwest Pac10 country, Arizona Wildcat Senior receiver Andre Thurman, was ruled academically ineligible before the Wildcat fall camp opened.  Thurman wasn't just a dude on the Wildcats roster but a player who ranked 9th in Arizona career receptions (105) and 11th in career yards (1,530), and had legit 4.4 game breaking speed.  Thurman was put in touch with the SOU staff and next thing you know Thurman was able to gain his eligibility by taking some on-line classes (Can you fog a mirror?  Good, you're in.) and next thing you know the Raiders have a game breaker on the outside to go along with returning 1st team All-American Running Back, Dusty McGrorty.  The Raider offense was loaded.

For the 'Cats, 2003 had many folks around the 'Catdome both a little nervous but very optimistic as the same time.   The 'Cats lost some tremendous players off that 2002 roster including a number of pieces on a great offensive line, our own legendary running back David Russell, and some fantastic defensive linemen.  But returning was a stand-out quarterback in Tyler Mathews, a group of great linebackers and defensive backs, an up-and-coming running back, and young core of wide receivers that would go on to have storybook careers (Casey Allen, George Carter, Brandon Hazenberg, and Brad McKechnie).  Folks around the 'Catdome didn't know it, but not only would this 2003 team match the success of the 2002 team, they would advance deeper in the playoffs and come within 6 points of beating the eventual National Champs (Saint John's).  Their success set the stage for Linfield's 2004 National Championship run.

As you could tell form the two paragraphs above but both the Raiders and 'Cats were loaded with play makers and this 2003 edition of Linfield vs. Southern Oregon wouldn't disappoint a big and rabid pro-raider crowd down in Ashland.

It didn't take long for the fireworks to start as Southern Oregon received the opening kickoff and after a few 1st downs, went up top to see just what they had in their Arizona transfer.  Turned out Andre Thurman was pretty darn good as he hauled in 42-yard bomb to open up the scoring.  In a theme that developed throughout the night the 'Cats answered as Linfield's Ty Mathews hit Casey Allen for the 18-yard TD strike.  The excitement of tying up the game lasted as long as a Linfield-Redlands telephone conversation (if Redlands picks up).  SOU's Andre Thurman took the Linfield kickoff at his own 8-yard line, found a seam on the left side, and it was off the races for a 92-yard kickoff return.  Uh-oh.

Linfield and SOU traded some possessions until the 'Cats hit a 33-yard field goal to make the count 14-10 SOU.  Two possessions later, the 'Cats would capture their first lead on a 26-yard Mathews to Josh Armstrong TD pass early in the 2nd (17-14 Linfield).  Another huge SOU kick return set up the Raiders in prime territory and SOU would once again take the lead at 21-17.  And on and on we went in that first half.  Linfield with an uppercut, SOU with an overhand right, Linfield with a left hook.  It was the equivalent of two heavyweights swinging for the fences time and again.  By the time the dust settled SOU went into the half with a 30-24 lead.

I don't know what the 'Cats talked about at half but whatever it was Linfield came out of the 2nd half gates on a mission.  Linfield's defense put a cap on the Raider's offensive explosion and kept SOU off the board for the entire quarter.  Linfield scored on three consecutive possessions as Mathews hit George Carter on a 36-yard bomb, a 22-yard Thomas Ford gut shot TD rush, and a 22-yard Garrett Wales field goal in the opening moments in the 4th quarter as Linfield raced out to a 41-30 lead.

That's when SOU's Dusty McGrorty put the Raiders on his back as SOU roared back off of two touchdown rushes of 23-yards and a 53-yard gallop with 5:05 left to give SOU the 42-41 lead.  That 53-yard run felt like a back-breaker that electrified Raider Stadium.  It left Linfield stunned but didn't knock the belief out of the 'Cats.

Starting on their own 35, Linfield turned to a strategy of moving the chains down the field.  An 8-yard pick up, 4 more yards and a 1st down.  Then a 8-yard rush by Ford but a tripping penalty pushed back Linfield to a 2nd and 16.  That didn't matter as Mathews found tight end Marcus Ward for a 19-yard connection for another 1st down at the SOU 39.  Three plays later the 'Cats faced a 3rd and 7  but the 'Cats converted on a 8-yard Allen reception.  After a 3-yard pickup from Hazenberg, the 'Cats lined up for a 2nd and 7 on the SOU 25 with a little over 1:30 left to play.

The 'Cats ran a little bubble screen and go as Mathews took one step back, pumped fake, dropped back one more step and floated up a beautiful little arching pass to George Carter who sliced his way between conversing defenders and fell into the end zone for the touchdown and a 42-41 Linfield lead.  Un-freaking-believable.  The 'Cats had to turn away SOU one more time as Linfield's Ty Smith would pick off the desperation SOU pass to close out the game.

2003 Linfield vs Wartburg:  Wales hits game winning field goal with zeros on the clock.

Back-to-Back plays from 2003 and they're both deserving.  As we talked about during our honorable mention posts, the 'Cats hosted Wartburg in the 1st round of the 2002 playoffs.  Linfield bloodied and batter the Knight for the 52-15 victory.  Once again these two teams would square off for another playoff tilt but this time it wouldn't be easy for the 'Cats.

The Knights were a fantastic football team in 2003.  A gritty and tough as nails defense (8.9 points allowed per game) with a number of offensive play-makers to boot (36.6 PPG).  Wartburg entered this 2nd round playoff game with an 11-0 record, #4 ranking, and looking to erase the memory of Linfield's throttling in 2002.

Linfield entered the game vs Wartburg with a 10-0 record after dispatching Redlands in a close 1st round playoff victory.  The 'Cats were explosive on offense with a Tyler Mathews led attack that averaged 44.1 points per game, and stand-out defense that only yielded 17.8 points against, and #3 ranking headed into post-season.  This was set up to be an epic showdown at the 'Catdome.  But that was a little problem...the game wasn't played the 'Catdome.

The weather leading up to the 'Cats 1st round playoff game vs Redlands was soaking wet.  It was a constant downpour all week long and the rain continued to hammer during the contest.  The aftermath was a muddy and sloppy sod surface that the NCAA deemed unplayable.  The solution was that Linfield had to move their "home" game 30 minutes south to Willamette.  The Bearcats has just installed the 1st field turf surface in the NWC prior to the season and the NCAA allowed the game to be held in the Bearcats home digs (Willamette wasn't using them for anything) with Linfield acting as the home team.  This didn't sit very well with the Linfield faithful.  In fact, seeing a home playoff game getting removed from the 'Catdome and played at Willamette of all places was the spark needed for alumni to open up their wallets to the tune of 1.4 million dollars so Linfield could revamp the 'Catdome.  A new field turf surface with additional bells and whistles were installed before the 2004 season to make an already great place to watch college football all the more better.

Right from the start of the game you knew this was going to be a knockdown brawl between these two talented squads.  Linfield and Wartburg traded possession to start the game before Linfield went on a huge 17 play, 80-yard drive that was capped off by Mathews hitting Josh Armstrong for the 17-yard strike.  Wartburg returned the favor by offering up a double-digit play drive that resulted in their 1st score of the game.  The PAT failed and left Linfield with a 7-6 lead.

The 'Cats would tack on a field goal and then see both teams trade the ball back and forth a few times before Linfield would seize control of the game.    With 1st and goal from the 10, Mathews dumped a little 5-yard out to Casey Allen who would proceed to go dump truck on the Wartburg corner and bully him back into the end zone for the 17-6 Linfield lead as the half would wrap up.

The 3rd quarter started in forgettable fashion as both teams were unable to get anything going against two fine defenses.  Then one of the most remarkable string of Linfield defensive turn backs occurred. Wartburg's offense started to get on the move, but time after time, would get turned back by Linfield.

With Wartburg on the Linfield 12, the 'Cats Chris Boock picked a pass.  The Knights back on the 'Cats 13 and Josh Ort with the interception.   Next possession, the 'Cats Ty Smith with another pick at the 40 yard line.  Then one more time, as Wartburg was again knocking on the door at the Linfield 16.  This time the Knights went with the halfback pass, and once again, Josh Ort would pick off the pass just outside of the goal line.  Four consecutive Linfield interceptions that kept turning away the Knights.  The problem was that the 'Cats offense was only able to muster up 3 points off the turnovers as the game entered the early stages of the 4th quarter (20-6 Linfield).

The Knight offense kept coming and was finally able to get the ball into the end zone without having a Linfield defender pick it off.  (20-13 Linfield, 7:26 to go).  The 'Cats offense continued stumbling in the 2nd half as the Knights kept getting to Mathews for sacks or pressures.  Linfield had to give the ball back to Wartburg with 2:42 left in the game and watched as the Knights put together a brilliant offensive drive.  It only took Wartburg 1 minute and 21 seconds to move 74-yards to even the game at 20-20 off a 9-yard TD pass.  The Linfield fans were stunned by the turn of events and how quickly the game went from all Linfield to looking like overtime.

But the Linfield offense, that had been kept under wraps all half, responded when the 'Cats need them the most.  Linfield started their final drive on their own 27 with 1:16 left in the game.  The first play on the drive was Ty Mathews throwing up a floater to Casey Allen that basically said "My guy is better than yours."  Ty was right.  Allen gracefully leaped into the air over the Wartburg corner to snare the Mathews pass and raced 35 yards to the Wartburg 38.  The very next play, the 'Cats caught Wartbug off guard as Thomas Ford rushed for a critical 17-yard game down to the Knight 21.  Linfield ran three more plays to get the clock down to 3 ticks remaining in the contest and sent Garrett Wales and the field goal team to bring it home. 

2004 Linfield at UW-Stevens Point: Thomas Ford 59-yard dagger points the 'Cats to victory.

After the 'Cats lost out in Saint John's in a tight West Regional finals (31-25) in 2003 the talk was almost immediately about the 'Cats being a title contender in 2004 with all of the offensive and defensive talent the 'Cats were bring back.  Saint John's went on to stomp RPI in the Semifinals and bury Mount Union by a score of 24-6 in the National Title game.  Folks that saw that 2003 Wildcat team knew just how close Linfield was to knocking down the door.

Fast forward a few short months later and there was some rumors floating around about a D1 quarterback transfer out of Utah that was coming to Linfield.  I didn't pay too much attention to it because rumors are just that.  A couple of days later, I pick up the Oregonian and on the top of the sports page is cut out of a quarterback (Elliott) with big bold print "Elliott To Transfer To Linfield."  Right then, I thought "OK, this guy must be pretty good if he's getting this kind of run by the Oregonian."  That might have been a little of an inner-dialog understatement.

Elliott transfer into Linfield during the spring of 2004 and immediately hit it off with his coaches, teammates, and the Linfield community as a whole.  Brett isn't a big timer type of guy where he acted like he was too important for his current situation.  We all have known this type of guy at one point of our life.  He who thought they should have been at "X" college but his coaches or someone else had held him back or didn't give him a good enough shake.  Nope, Brett was a normal college aged kid that liked to have fun with his friends, enjoyed the challenge in the classroom, and just happened to be an exceptional talent on the field.  It was a seamless fit between the 'Catdome and Brett.

So the anticipation was running at an all-time high headed into the 2004 season opener.  The 'Cats were wrapping up a $1.4 million dollar renovation of the 'Catdome, had Linfield ranked as a pre-season ranked #3, the program had a loaded roster coming off of two consecutive banner seasons, and people wanted to see if Elliott was the real deal.

It didn't take long for the 4,000+ fans that packed the 'Catdome to understand that some great was happening as Elliott accounted for six Linfield 1st half touchdowns (5 passing, 1 rushing) in the 'Cats 58-17 stomping of Western Oregon.  Elliott didn't take a snap for the rest of the game and the rest is history.

At least that's what some think.

A number of folks look back to that 2004 season and think that Linfield bashed and kicked around everyone on the schedule until the championship game when Mary-Hardin Baylor played a down to the last seconds cliff hanger.  That wasn't the case.  The very next week after WOU, the 'Cats faced a huge challenge out at UW-Stevens Point that almost derailed the 2004 season before it could take off.

The 2004 UW-Stevens Point Pointers were the #7 team in the land and had what many considered to be the best secondary in the country.   Linfield was making a long and hard trip out to the middle of Wisconsin to play a team that had not suffered a non-conference regular-season loss since 1981 and had not dropped a home game to a non-conference division 3 opponent since 1974.  The Pointers had huge front lines, all sorts of athletes, and a big strong quarterback that could do it with either his arm or legs.

The 'Cats showed up to Goerke Field and at first I thought we took a wrong turn and wound up in a cow pasture because the grass on that field must have been ankle deep.  Regardless of the height of the grass it didn't slow down the action on the field.  During the entirety of the 1st quarter the Pointers harassed and broke up the timing of the 'Cats offense while Stevens Point marched their 1st possession of the game 63-yards for the touchdown.  Linfield cracked the scoreboard with a big 48-yard field goal by Garrett Wales to start the 2nd quarter but UWSP answered right back with a pounding 73-yard TD drive to make the count 14-3 UWSP.

Linfield's offense started to find a groove as the 'Cats went four wide with Elliott and company slicing up the Pointers defense for two consecutive touchdowns to see Linfield surge to a 18-14 lead (Linfield hit a two-point conversion).  The Pointers didn't take long to respond as their big brawling quarterback moved UWSP quickly down the pasture and punched in a 13-yard TD scrambled where he ran over 2 different Linfield defenders.  Linfield went into the half down 21-18.

The action didn't slow down the start the 2nd half as UWSP once again marched right through the 'Cats defense for 73-yards and pushed the lead to 10 with the touchdown (28-18).  Linfield said "You can go 73-yards?  We'll go 80." as the 'Cats offense answered with an 80-yard TD march to keep the game within reach at 28-25.  At this point in the game, the 'Cats defense made some adjustments and  started to turn the tide on the Pointer offense and forced UWSP into a three and out.  UWSP put the 'Cats on their own 15 off the punt when the unthinkable happened.  The memory is a little fuzzy, but it was either a bobbled pass or the Pointer corner jumped the rout, regardless the Elliott pass went pick six.  UWSP - 35, Linfield -25.

The 'Cats next drive stalled out and the game went into the 4th quarter with Linfield down 10 and looking like the season would incur a major setback.  But the adjustments the 'Cats defense made kept UWSP at bay and the Linfield offense caught fire.

The first 4th quarter possession saw Linfield blaze 73-yards down the field for the TD (UWSP - 35, Linfield - 32).  UWSP's offense went three and out deep in their own territory and a 35-yard Hazenberg punt return set up shop for the offense at the Pointer 10.  One Elliott to Casey Allen pass later and the 'Cats took back the lead 39-35.

With the game slipping away, the Pointers bounced back and started moving the ball on the 'Cats once again.  On a 3rd and 10 from the 'Cats 35 yard line, the Linfield defense pressured the pointer QB and forced a throw.  Linfield Freshman corner back, Andrew Woods, would make a huge interception to turn back Stevens Point with 7:23 left in the game.

The 'Cats moved the ball out to their own 41 and that's when Linfield put the game on ice.  The 'Cats lined up with trips to the wide side of the field and single receiver on the short side.  Linfield went with a little swing screen pass where running back Thomas Ford flared out, Hazenberg came crashing down to crack a linebacker, and offensive linemen Dwight Donaldson and James Holan pealed out and look for Pointers to pick up.  The play developed beautifully.  Hazenberg sealed the backer, Holan eliminated the corner playing on Haze, and T-Ford found the seam and exploded for a 59-yard romp that finished off the Pointer threat and moved Linfield to 2-0.  The rest is history.

 2011 Linfield vs California Lutheran:  'Cats block party locks up a playoff win over the Kingsmen.

I'm not going to give this play the 30 paragraph treatment of the previous plays for a few reasons.  The main being this newer regional rivalry is very fresh and on-going.  Linfield plays CLU in a few short weeks and I don't want to give CLU any more material to turn into fancy motivational posters to hang on the walls in the athletic facility.  All I'll say, is this was a great playoff game between two familiar and top flight Division III squads.

It's pretty self-explanatory, if CLU hits this field goal late in the 4th quarter then the game gets tied up at 30 and is most likely headed to overtime where anything could happen. Thankfully the 'Cats defense and Tyler Steele came though in the clutch.

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