By Brandon Chinn, Athletics Communications Writer
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Willamette University football team's final non-conference game at California Lutheran University pretty much summarized its 2016 preseason performance as a whole.
It started out sluggish, and ended with a bang.
Willamette trailed all three non-conference opponents by at least 20 points in the first half, but finished the three games with a 54-32 scoring advantage in the second half.
Trailing the Kingsmen throughout the entirety of the first three quarters, the Bearcats stormed out of a 21-point deficit late in the first half and scored a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns -- the latter coming in the final minute of regulation -- to cap off their 28-24 comeback victory.
For Willamette (1-2), the comeback represented its lone win in non-conference play. California Lutheran dropped to 0-2.
The Kingsmen were well in control for much of the early going. After a Willamette punt on the contest's opening drive, California Lutheran rattled off a lengthy 12-play, 92-yard drive in just over four minutes for the game's first score.
Chris Beeson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, capping off a drive in which the Kingsmen converted on a third-down and a fourth-down conversion.
California Lutheran began the early part of the second quarter much like it did in the first -- with a touchdown.
Adam Friederichsen delivered a 17-yard strike to Aaron Lacombe for the score, putting the Bearcats in a 14-point hole with 11:08 remaining in the first half.
The early damage didn't stop there. Ryan Knowlton (Jr., QB, Pullayup, WA/Emerald Ridge HS) was intercepted on the ensuing possession, leading to a red zone opportunity for the Kingsmen offense at the WU 18.
CLU tripled its lead just three plays later, on 3rd-and-15, as Friederichsen found Lacombe through the air once again for a 23-yard score.
Ironically, it was after Willamette's fifth punt of the half that the Bearcats' fortunes began to turn.
An eight-yard run by Friederichsen on third down gave CLU a first down on its own 37-yard line. But Nick Brickous (Sr., CB, Mesa, AZ/Perry HS) intercepted the opposing quarterback on the very next play and returned it 68 yards to the Lutheran 1-yard line.
Taylor Wyman (Sr., RB, Bellevue, WA/Issaquah HS) punched it into the end zone on the following play to put the Bearcats on the scoreboard. Nathan Dunford (So., LB/PK, San Diego, CA/Mt. Carmel HS) kicked the extra point, cutting the Kingsmen's lead to 21-7.
A defensive battle -- featuring five punts and two failed fourth-down attempts between the two teams -- broke out in the third quarter. That was true except on the Bearcats' final drive of the period.
Starting on its own 31-yard line, Willamette traveled 69 yards on eight plays and scored on a 3-yard run by Jimmy Sharpe (Sr., RB, Walnut Creek, CA/Northgate HS) to convert a 4th-and-goal situation with 39 seconds on the clock.
Willamette's furious second half rally was aided by a crucial defensive stand at the start of the fourth quarter.
With a 3rd-and-goal situation for CLU at the WU 3-yard line, Tyler Ropp (Sr., DL, Corvallis, OR/Santiam Christian) of Willamette stuffed a rushing attempt by Foorever Campbell and drove him back for a 2-yard loss.
The Kingsmen did add a field goal to complete the 14-play, 61-yard drive, making it a two-score game at 24-14.
Willamette's momentum continued to assemble on the ensuing kickoff, as Jeremiah James (Jr., WR, Salem, OR/South Salem HS) returned the offering 48 yards to the Kingsmen 32-yard line.
James continued his solid drive, catching a 16-yard pass from Knowlton on 3rd-and-9 to generate a new set of downs inside the CLU 5-yard line. The Bearcats needed only one of those downs, as Wyman crossed the goal line from four yards out for his second score of the day with 8:04 left in the game.
It took just four plays from scrimmage before the Bearcats' defense forced a California Lutheran punt, giving Willamette possession at the WU 40-yard line with 5:07 remaining.
Trailing by four, Willamette's offense took the field and delivered its most dramatic drive of the season.
A 3-yard rush by Wyman and an incomplete pass set up a 3rd-and-7 for the Bearcats. Wyman picked up four more yards on third down, setting up a make-or-break 4th-and-3.
The Bearcats extended the drive, as Knowlton scrambled ahead for four yards and stretched himself into CLU territory for the first down.
Three plays later, Willamette was faced with another fourth down situation. The offense converted once again, as Knowlton found receiver Alex Israel (Sr., McMinnville, OR/McMinneville HS) 10 yards down field for the game-saving first down.
Three plays later, that passing duo was at it again. With the ball at the CLU 15-yard line, Knowlton delivered a touchdown strike to Israel for the game-winning score with 59 seconds remaining. Dunford converted the extra point.
Califonria Lutheran worked quickly from its own 40-yard line following the kick return, traveling all the way down to the WU 15-yard line. But an incomplete pass on 4th-and-1 sealed the win for the cardiac Bearcats.
The game-winning throw -- which helped cap off Willamette's 28-3 run -- was Knowlton's lone touchdown of the game. He finished with 231 yards on 26 of 48 passing.
Wyman turned 21 carries into a gain of 60 rushing yards. He scored two of Willamette's four touchdowns.
The final reception for Willamette also put Israel over the 100-yard mark for the day. He hauled in seven catches for 109 yards and a touchdown, while James also hauled in seven targets for 40 yards.
Brickous led the defense with seven total tackles (five solo) and had the team's lone interception which set up WU's first score of the game.
After allowing 24 points in the first 25 minutes of game action, the Bearcat defense stiffened up to the tune of just three points allowed through the final two and a half quarters.
Having ended its preseason on a high note, Willamette looks to keep the momentum rolling as it starts Northwest Conference action at the University of Puget Sound on Saturday, Oct. 1. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.