Wildcats top Mary Hardin-Baylor to finish 13-0
SALEM, Va. -- The Linfield Wildcats showed they're more than just a star quarterback.
Riley Jenkins turned a swing pass from Brett Elliott into a go-ahead touchdown with 5:51 to play Saturday as the Wildcats capped a perfect season with its first NCAA Division III national championship, beating Mary Hardin-Baylor 28-21.
The scoring pass was the second of the game for Elliott and his NCAA record 61st of the season, but the special teams play that set it up and solid defense throughout were every bit as important to the guys from McMinnville, Ore.
"The offense has gotten a lot of the publicity, but there's no question that to see the defense step up today and make big plays allowed us to win as a team," Linfield coach Jay Locey said.
The 10-yard score came after Linfield (13-0) stymied the Crusaders on their 18 and Zach Fleming disrupted a Hunter Hamrick punt attempt, causing Hamrick to fumble the ball and fall on it on his 10.
"That wasn't even a punt block," Fleming said, adding that the Wildcats were setting up for a return hoping to get good field position.
"I came off the edge and I swam my man and it was just wide open, so I took it," he said. "I thought I had a penalty. I thought he kicked it."
Instead, Linfield had the break it needed to end what had become a defensive struggle between two of Division III's highest scoring teams.
They wasted no time.
On the next play, Elliott hit Jenkins out of the backfield. Jenkins made a one-handed grab, eluded two defenders down the sideline and dived into the end zone.
Elliott, a former starter at Utah who transferred after losing his starting job to Alex Smith, thought he had missed his chance when he threw the ball.
"I overthrew him. I thought it was incomplete and I was thinking about the next play," he said. "Then all of a sudden, he sticks out his left arm and makes an unbelievable catch. That's been the story of our season."
Elliott finished 20 for 34 for 282 yards with two interceptions. He also threw a swing pass that Brandon Hazenberg turned into a 39-yard touchdown on the third play of the game.
Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-2) had tied the game with 9:01 remaining on Freddie Rollins' 18-yard run and then his 2-point conversion run.
The Crusaders moved to the Linfield 19 on their last possession in a drive that featured a 55-yard pass from Josh Welsh to P.J. Williams. But the Wildcats ended the threat and preserved the win by sacking Welsh on a fourth-and-4.
"In the huddle before we broke, everybody looked in each other's eyes and we knew that was the play to stop the game," said Linfield defensive end Kelley Bertrand, one of the Wildcats in on the sack.
The championship is the first in Division III for Linfield, of McMinnville, Ore., which moved up to the division in 1998. The Wildcats also won NAIA Division II national titles in 1982, 1984 and 1986.
Mary Hardin-Baylor, a women's college in Belton, Texas, until 1971 that didn't start playing football until 1998, also was bidding for its first NCAA title.
The botched punt and other mistakes killed the Crusaders' chances.
"There was a breakdown in protection" on the punt play, Crusaders coach Pete Fredenburg said. "We had the right protection in, but they gave us a little look and one of our guys didn't get out wide enough. ... You can't do that if you're going to win the national championship."
Crusaders placekicker Zach Newcomb also missed an extra point and a 26-yard field goal.
Linfield, the highest scoring team in Division III with an average of 51.8 points, seemed likely to roll easily at the outset. It took the Wildcats three plays and just 44 seconds to go 66 yards and lead 7-0.
Williams caught a 30-yard scoring pass from Welch in the second quarter, answering a 14-yard run by Jenkins, but the Wildcats went up 21-13 on Elliott's 1-yard dive right before halftime.
Williams finished with eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns
Jenkins was named the game's most outstanding player after rushing for 81 yards on 18 carries and catching four passes for 64 yards.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press