For the first time since week 5, Linfield found themselves in a tough game: Their dynamic up-tempo spread offense finally ran into a defense that could give them serious fits; Inns had his first turnover since week 5, and all the miscues and penalties from earlier in the season returned on a sunny afternoon at Conner Field.
Fortunately for Linfield, their defense was more than ready to rise to the occasion in the Wildcat’s first true road test of the season.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats turned back the upset bid of Menlo, the 25th ranked team in NAIA, to the tune of a 23-6 victory in a late-season non-conference game. The win pushed Linfield to 7-0, while Menlo dropped to 5-3.
“I’m very pleased with our team having to go through something; we needed to feel pressure again,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said.
The Linfield offense finally ran into an opponent that could give them some trouble; The Wildcats were held to a season-low 299 yards, which is the first time this season that they’ve had under 400 yards, and their second-lowest point total of the season. The lack of a running game was the biggest issue, as Linfield totaled a season-low 44 yards on the day. Josh Hill was held to 39 yards on 13 carries, while Stephen Nasca led the team with 42 yards on three carries. Mickey Inns went 21-38 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on the afternoon. Lucas Jepson led all receivers with 136 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions.
“They just schematically lined up in such a way that it forced us to pass most downs,” Smith said. “I felt these guys studied us up pretty well, and played us like Cal Lutheran played us. The sacks are what destroyed us, and we had so many penalties that put us in long yardage situations that our running game never had a chance to get going; I don’t know that we got stopped as much as we just never had a chance to do it. ”
“We got a great defensive staff here,” Menlo coach Fred Guidici said. “Our kids have been together here for a while; when there’s continuity, it gives you a chance. We had a lot of success on defense.”
While Linfield’s offense had their worst performance of the season, Linfield’s defense came up big to protect their undefeated record. The Wildcat defense allowed a season-low 161 yards to Menlo’s offense, which included 40 yards on the ground. Linfield wasn’t able to force any turnovers, but Menlo’s inability to move the ball with any consistency negated any chance they had of pulling off an upset. Quarterback Matt Palesasa went 12-28 for 73 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. Robert Adan had 109 yards and no touchdowns on seven receptions.
“We made a lot of mental mistakes, and you can’t do that against a team like Linfield; that’s going to get you killed,” Guidici said. “One guy going the wrong way, one guy missing a block, we have a penalty, and the penalty sets you back, and you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole.”
“We talk all the time about each phase having a mindset to win the game regardless of what the other phase is doing, and if it’s one of those days where we need to win 2-0, then so be it,” Smith said.
The game started out fast for Linfield; on their first possession, the Wildcats marched 60 yards in eight plays, capped by Inns’ 31-yard touchdown strike to Jepson to put Linfield up 7-0 with 10:05 to go in the first quarter. Linfield later would block a Menlo punt for a touchdown; a blocked extra point made it 13-0 Linfield with 4:54 to go in the first quarter.
“At the time, we didn’t know it was going to be a tough defensive game, but it sure turned out to be one,” Smith said. “Having a lead is really nice on defense; it allows you to be a little more aggressive with your play-calling; you don’t have to worry about making that one mistake that can cost you the game.”
Menlo’s Thomas Reynolds’ 40-yard touchdown run, followed by a blocked extra point, made it 13-6 Linfield with 10:19 to go in the second quarter. After a few punt exchanges, Linfield kicker Josh Kay tacked on a 37-yard field goal to make it 16-6 Wildcats with 1:37 to go in the second quarter. After both teams battled through a scoreless, defensive third quarter, Linfield solidified the win in the fourth quarter win Inns’ 73-yard touchdown bomb to Jepson with 6:01 to go in the game, making it 23-6 Linfield.
“We had a lot of opportunities on offense, but they played real well on defense,” Guidici said. “I thought it was offensive pass interference to tell you the truth, but the kid made a good play, and that’s how it goes; what are you gonna do?”
“It put the game away; it left no doubt,” Smith said. “I don’t know if it would have mattered the way our defense was playing, but it was nice not taking those chances. I think our offense needed that; they were pretty frustrated with how things were going, and it builds their confidence a little bit.”
Linfield resumes conference play in their trip to the Pine Bowl to take on Whitworth next Saturday; Linfield came behind from a halftime deficit to beat Whitworth 42-17 at Maxwell Field last season.
Menlo takes on Azusa Pacific, the tenth-ranked team in NAIA, next Saturday at Conner Field.
Link to Boxscore: http://www.linfield.edu/sports/stats/fb/men1029.htm
Link to Postgame Analysis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQgWCocuOt8&feature=channel_video_title