PLU defense stifles Willamette’s top-ranked offense in 35-24 win

By Tyler Scott, Director of Athletics Communications

Quarterback Dalton Ritchey accounted for four touchdowns and the Pacific Lutheran defense intercepted five passes as the 17th-ranked Lute football team knocked off No. 21, Willamette, 35-24 Saturday afternoon at McCulloch Stadium.

Pacific Lutheran improves to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in Northwest Conference play with the win, while Willamette takes its first loss of the season to fall to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the NWC.

Ritchey, a junior, set career highs in rush attempts and yards, carrying the ball 22 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns. The PLU quarterback also threw for 196 yards and one score to total 354 yards. Junior Niko Madison added 73 yards and a touchdown on the ground to go with 41 receiving yards and another score, and junior Kyle Warner caught five passes for a game-high 108 yards.

But even with Ritchey’s stellar play, the PLU defense was the story of the game as the Lutes forced six Willamette turnovers and held the highest-rated offense in the Northwest Conference to nearly 200 yards below its season average. Willamette Quarterback Josh Dean nearly tripled his season interception total, as the Lutes picked him off five times after he came into the game with three interceptions all year.

Five different Lutes intercepted passes in the game. Junior Greg Hibbard, senior Ben Kaestner, senior Sean McFadden, junior Connor Cummings and senior Dalton Darmody all snagged passes intended for Willamette receivers. Junior Joel Anthony finished with a game-high 11 tackles and three of the Lutes’ four sacks. Seinor Jordan Patterson totaled 10 tackles and two tackles for-loss.

The PLU offense opened its first drive with a 33-yard gain on a pass from Ritchey to Warner, but that drive fizzled out with a fourth-down incompletion at the Willamette 36. Kaestner claimed the first interception of the game for PLU three plays later, giving Ritchey and the offense a short field beginning at that same Willamette 36 spot. Seven plays later, Ritchey ran it in from two yards out to give the visitors the early lead.

Willamette tied it up on the following drive, moving 65 yards on eight plays to score on a Dean pass to Derek Traeger from 9 yards out. Dean finished the game with 279 passing yards on 47 attempts, while Traeger caught 11 passes for 81 yards and De’Zhon Grace added nine receptions for 104 yards.

The Lutes reclaimed the lead during their first drive of the second quarter. Hibbard grabbed his interception late in the first quarter, returning it 31 yards to the Willamette 28. Once again, PLU took advantage of the short field as Ritchey’s 7-yard TD run capped a six-play drive.

Later in the period, Darmody’s interception set the stage for PLU’s longest drive of the game. The Lute offense took over at the PLU 29 and moved down the field in 10 plays spanning 6:03 on the clock. When the Bearcat defense forced PLU into a seemingly-impossible fourth-and-17 at the WU 24-yard line, Ritchey rolled right and tossed a 24-yard scoring pass to Madison in the end zone to make it 21-7.

Another big defensive stand helped the Lutes score another touchdown going into halftime. PLU forced a fourth-and-1 incompletion by Dean at the PLU 48, and Ritchey picked up his third rushing touchdown of the game from 1 yard out as time ran out in the half.

Midway through the third quarter the Bearcats found their way back onto the scoreboard, advancing all the way to first-and-goal from the PLU 5-yard line before the Lute defense tightened up and forced a 22-yard field goal to make it 28-10. That was the score going into the final quarter of play.

Willamette made it a two-possession game early in the fourth when Dean capped a 10-play drive with a 3-yard scoring pass to Austin Jones to pull the hosts within 28-17. But the Lutes responded with a four-play 76-yard touchdown drive on their next possession. Ritchey rushed left for 15 yards on the first play and then broke up the middle for 50 yards on the next play. Madison finished it off with a 6-yard touchdown run to stretch the lead back to 35-17.

That was short-lived, however, as Tyson Giza returned senior Nick Kaylor’s kickoff 74 yards for a score to make it 35-24 with 10:07 left to play. While Willamette might have thought it had claimed momentum at that point, the PLU offense switched to clock-burning mode and the Bearcats’ final two possessions ended in interceptions by McFadden and Cummings to clinch the win for the Lutes.

Pacific Lutheran out-gained Willamette 448-to-336 in the win, including a 252-to-57 advantage on the ground. The Lutes struggled to hold onto the ball as well in the game, fumbling six times, but PLU was able to recover all but two of those fumbles.

One of the strangest – and likely key – plays of the game came midway through the third quarter when Willamette blocked a PLU punt and recovered the ball for what seemed to be a touchdown. However, the Bearcat defender lost the ball before he crossed the goal line, and when the ball went out the back of the end zone, officials ruled it a touchback and awarded PLU the ball at the Willamette 20-yard line.

The Lutes return home next weekend for their final home game of the year, hosting cross-town rival Puget Sound University for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff.

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