Coming into the 2005 season the Willamette University football team had many question marks. The Bearcats, who were coming off a 7-4 season in which they lost in the first round of the national playoffs, were in search of an identity.
For starters, who would step up to play on the offensive line?
How would the Bearcats replace all four starters on the defensive line?
What about the receivers? Who would be the go to guy?
But the most pressing question of all: Would this team be a contender at the end of the year?
After losing their first three games of the season, the young Bearcats found their way as players stepped up to lead the team to a second place finish in the Northwest Conference, and within a game of a second straight national playoff appearance.
Willamette rattled off five straight victories after those three losses, and for the third straight year they met Linfield in the final week of the regular season with the NWC title on the line.
Despite losing to the defending national champion Wildcats this past Saturday 63-21, the Bearcats were still one of 12 teams that the NCAA selection committee looked at for the final seven at-large bids into this year's playoffs. In the end, though, Willamettes 5-4 overall record was quite possibly what kept them from receiving an at-large selection.
The Bearcats will lose only five players from this years squad, so there will be plenty of optimism heading into 2006, especially since they return 19 starters (9 offense, 10 defense).
As for the questions that the team faced back in fall camp, all of them were answered with very positive results.
On the offensive line sophomore Brandon Bennett (San Marcos, Calif.) was the only returning starter, but Justin Cole (SO, Hillsboro, Ore.), Pat Fejaran (JR, National City, Calif.), junior college transfer Vince Juarez (JR, Palo Alto, Calif.), and freshman Jake Forshey (Buellton, Calif.) each stepped up to assume starting roles. Those five players paved the way for a Willamette rushing attack that finished 18th in the country with an average of 238.7 yards per game.
Bennett ended up garnering first team All-NWC honors, while Juarez and Cole both earned honorable mention honors.
Whereas the offensive line had at least one returning starter, the same could not be said for defensive line, which lost all four starters, including All-American DE Nate Matlock.
Early in the season there were eight to nine players in the mix for a starting position, but by mid-season players like Mitch MacCready (SO, Manteca, Calif.), Mike Reeves (FR, Corvallis, Ore.) , and Chris Mulitalo (SO, San Leandro, Calif.) had become regular starters.
MacCready earned second team All-NWC honors, while Reeves was an honorable mention pick after finishing the year tied for the league lead in total tackles by defensive lineman. Both will return, along with Mulitalo, freshman Thomas Redinger (Boise, Ida.), sophomore Matt Gomez (Petaluma, Calif.) and juniors Joshua Lee (Eugene, Ore.) and Rah-Ben Coates (Los Angeles, Calif.). Redinger, Gomez, Lee, and Coates all started at point during the season.
At receiver, Michael Plank (JR, Stockton, Calif.) emerged as the teams go to guy on his way to being named second team All-NWC. Plank, who was a quarterback before being moved to receiver at the start of fall camp, had a break-out game in week six against Southern Oregon when he had nine catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
Flanker Ryan Hernandez (JR, Portland, Ore.) and tight end Tony Davis (SO, Boise, Ida.) also proved to be reliable targets for senior QB Cameron Walton (Arroyo Grande, Calif.).
Walton and senior RB Quentin Brock (Fresno, Calif.) were the unquestioned leaders of the offense. Brock finished second in the NWC in rushing with 884 yards, and his 10 rushing touchdowns led the conference. Walton finished sixth in the conference with 456 yards and four touchdowns. Both earned All-NWC honors, Brock to the first team for the second straight year, and Walton to the second team.
The leader on the defensive side of the ball was senior LB Megdy Khoury (Elko, Nev.). Khoury led the conference in tackles on his way to being named first team All-NWC.
The linebacker corps was a strong point for the Bearcats all season with Khoury, and sophomores Phil Sweet (Albany, Ore.) and Devin ORourke (Eatonville, Wash.). Sweet finished second in the conference in tackles, and was named second team All-NWC, while ORourke finished tied for third in the conference in tackles, and was named honorable mention All-NWC.
In the secondary, safety Tim Alton (JR, Oregon City, Ore.), rover Tyler Gill (SO, Fresno, Calif.), and cornerbacks Wesley Randall (JR, Los Angeles, Calif.), Eki Yandall (JR, San Diego, Calif.), and Josh Barker (JR, Rocklin, Calif.) all were regulars.
Gill earned second team All-NWC honors after finishing tied for second in the conference in interceptions with four, while Alton and Randall both earned honorable mention for their play.
Along with the 19 starters that will return for the Bearcats on offense and defense, punter Clint Moran (SO, Mission Viejo, Calif.), kicker Matt Bicocca (SO, San Andreas, Calif.), and long-snapper Stephen Shamus (SO, Stockton, Calif.) all will return.
Moran averaged over 37 yards a punt, Bicocca was 6-of-8 on field goals, and Shamus didnt miss a snap all year, showing why he is one of the better long-snappers in the nation.
Willamettes willingness to play almost anyone could be considered part of the reason the team started off 0-3. In the teams first game they played up a division, losing to DII Western Oregon. In the second week, they took on Mary Hardin-Baylor, who was ranked No. 2 in the country at the DIII level at the time. And in week three, they traveled to Azusa Pacific, who was No. 20 in the NAIA at the time.
The team refused to give up despite those losses, and went on to win five straight, including the last four in either overtime or in the games final minute of play.
That final question of whether this team would be a contender is easily answered by looking at the fact that the team played for the conference championship and came close to a trip to the national playoffs for the second straight year.
Next fall head coach Mark Speckman and his coaching staff will most likely not have as many questions as they will expectations due to the success of this years team and the number of returning starters they will have. But if they do have a question for the 2006 version of Willamette football, it will be how far can this team go?