MCCULLOCH STADIUM It all comes down to one game for the Willamette University football team. The Bearcats, winners of five straight, will host top-ranked and undefeated Linfield this Saturday with both the Northwest Conference title, and a possible trip to the NCAA Division III National Playoffs, on the line.
Willamette almost certainly needs a victory Saturday to get a bid into the national playoffs, something Linfield will accomplish win or lose. The Wildcats, who are 7-0 on the year, are the defending national champions, have won five straight NWC titles, 22 straight NWC games, and have a 40 game regular-season winning streak.
Despite a 5-3 overall record, Willamette still has a shot at being selected to this years playoffs due to their 4-0 record in the West Region. The Bearcats have two factors on their side. First, one of the primary factors that the NCAA selection committee takes into consideration when selecting at-large bids is a teams record in its region. Secondly, this years playoff field has been expanded from 28 to 32 teams.
Saturday's contest, set for 5 p.m. at McCulloch Stadium, will mark the third year in a row that the two teams have met in the final week of the regular season with the conference campionship on the line. Linfield won last season 48-14 on its way to the national championship.
The Bearcats are coming off a 40-34 overtime victory over Whitworth last Saturday. The Pirates, at the time, were a favorite to receive an at-large bid to the national playoffs, but their playoff chances were shattered by Willamette's come-from-behind win. It was the fourth straight game for the Bearcats that has been decided in either overtime or in the games final minute of play.
Against Linfield, the Bearcats will be facing two first team All-Americans in QB Brett Elliott and WR Casey Allen. The duo has helped the Wildcats average 347.7 yards passing per game, which is fifth best in the country.
Elliott, the transfer from Division I Utah, leads the NWC in passing, averaging 321 yards a game, and is second in the nation in passing efficiency (190.3). While his numbers are not near where they were a year ago when he threw for over 4,500 yards and an NCAA all-levels record 61 touchdown passes, the senior from Lake Oswego still has passed for 2250 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Allen, meanwhile, has 40 receptions on the year and is tied for the conference lead with 13 touchdowns.
Much like last Saturday's game against Whitworth, the Bearcats will be facing a Linfield team that is almost a complete opposite of itself. White both Whitworth and Linfield rely heavily on their passing attacks, the Bearcats are very much a running team. Willamette enters the game 17th in the nation in rushing with an average of 249.9 yards per game.
Senior RB Quentin Brock (Fresno, Calif.) added to his impressive final season last weekend against Whitworth when he scored two touchdowns and ran for 144 yards. A first team All-NWC pick last year, Brock is second in the NWC in rushing with 796 yards and leads the conference in rushing touchdowns with nine.
Another big factor in the Bearcats rushing attack is QB Cameron Walton (SR, Arroyo Grande, Calif.), who ranks seventh in the NWC in rushing with 381 yards on the year. Through the air, he is 61-110 for 717 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions.
On the defensive side of the ball, Willamette features three of the conferences four top tacklers. Linebackers Phil Sweet (SO, Albany, Ore.), Megdy Khoury (SR, Elko, Nev.), and Devin O'Rourke (SO, Eatonville, Wash.) are first, third, and fourth respectively in tackles per game. Sweet has 74 stops on the year and is averaging 9.2 tackles per game, Khoury has 73 tackles and is averaging 9.1 tackles per game, and O'Rourke has 88 tackles with an average of 8.8 per game.
Linfield LB Brandon Olson, who is second in the conference in tackles per game at 9.1, heads a defense that leads the NWC in total defense, giving up just 298.9 yards per game. Olson is one of six returning first team All-NWC defenders for the Wildcats.
Saturdays game will be the 77th meeting between the two schools, who are separated by 26 miles...Linfield leads the series 42-33-1, which dates back to 1902...The Wildcats have won 28 of the previous 34 meetings, including the last five...Linfield had two weeks to prepare for Willamette, as they had a bye week last Saturday...Last week, Willamette rallied from 11 down with under six minutes to play to send their game against Whitworth into OT...In the extra period, Willamette's Tyler Gill (SO, Fresno, Calif.) intercepted Pirates QB Joel Clark at the goal line, giving Willamette the ball back...It only took the Bearcats two plays to score, as Brock rambled 20 yards for the game-winner...Gill earned NWC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his play against Whitworth, which also included forcing a fumble in the second half that led to a Bearcats touchdown...Willamette is seeking its first NWC title since 1999...Linfield has 50 consecutive winning seasons, the longest such streak in the history of college football...Not only does Linfield lead the NWC in total offense and total defense, the Wildcats lead the conference in 19 of 30 statistical categories...Willamette's Mark Speckman (Azusa Pacific '77) is 46-33 in his eight years as the head coach of the program...Linfield's Jay Locey (Oregon State '78) is 81-17 in his ten years with the McMinnville school...Both coaches enjoyed standout collegiate careers, Speckman at Menlo Junior College and Azusa Pacific, and Locey at Oregon State...Elliott was the starter as a sophomore at Utah in 2003 before an injury forced him to the sideline...He would never regain his starting job, as his backup, Alex Smith, played superbly...Smith went on to be the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft this past April.