No one, not even Sam Riddle, thought he would be in this position.
Late in the third quarter of the Linfield Wildcats‘ game at Chapman, the 3rd string quarterback found himself airborne. Riddle floated parallel to the ground. He spun over a defender like an F-22 fighter jet avoiding a missile.
Riddle came thudding to the ground, but he didn’t stay there long — there was too much to celebrate in that moment to stay still.
Riddle’s impressive touchdown run gave the Wildcats a 21-14 lead, and they never gave it back.
Coming into the season, senior Matt Yarbrough was the definite starter for the ‘Cats behind center. Yet an unfortunate groin injury has sidelined him as of late.
That cleared the way for Tom Knecht, the backup quarterback who got the start tonight in place of the injured Yarbrough.
Chapman took the lead with 17 seconds left in the first quarter on a four-yard Michael Lahey touchdown pass. This was a surprise to most in the stadium; we had the Linfield Wildcats ranked BR-9 in D3, while Chapman went into the game BR-54.
Knecht looked comfortable in the pocket but the offense simply couldn’t get anything rolling, so part way through the second quarter, Riddle got his chance.
It was a rocky start for Riddle. After a short run, a dropped pass, and a sack, Riddle found himself back on the sidelines watching the punting unit trot onto the field.
Fortunately for Riddle, the defense got a quick stop. Riddle made the most of his second chance.
The Wildcats marched down the field. It seemed as though every receiver on the field caught a pass in the drive and eleven plays and 71 yards later, Riddle connected with wide receiver Erick Douglas III for a nine-yard score.
The score was tied up at 7-7 halfway through the second quarter. The Linfield sideline was full of energy, and it felt as though the momentum had shifted in favor of the ‘Cats.
Not to be outdone, the Chapman squad remained stingy. Facing a possible three-and-out deep in their own territory, the Panthers converted a big first down on a screen to running back Kean Stancil. The offense kept driving down the field, taking chunks of yards in impressive fashion. Stancil and fellow running back Cody Chapple were strong ball-carriers, and racked up a combined 176 yards from scrimmage on the day.
The Panthers’ drive ended with a Chapple five-yard touchdown run. The offense ate up the rest of the clock in the first half, and went into the locker room up 14-7.
The Linfield stands were distraught with what they had seen, as fans of the ‘Cats murmured how the team looked outmatched. All the while, Chapman’s stands were bumping with up-and-coming energies.
It’s funny how things can change in just a blink of an eye. Well, six plays to be exact.
In the third quarter, Riddle and the ‘Cats cut through the Panthers’ defense on an impressive drive. Starting 75 yards from pay-dirt, Riddle hit wide receiver Levi Altringer for a 26-yard gain. The following play was a quick 5-yard hitch to wide receiver Brian Balsiger. Then, running back Tavon Willis hit a massive hole and busted down field for 22 yards.
Lightning struck on the next play, as Riddle bombed a pass down the right sideline to wide receiver Charlie Poppen for 27-yard touchdown. Riddle and the boys went nuts in the end zone after the 75-yard, 86 second drive. In just four plays, the score was tied 14-14.
The ‘Cats defense made quick work of the Panthers’ offense, and the ‘Cats got the ball right back.
Riddle and the O took the field on their own 25-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Riddle dropped back, looked left, and threw another sky-shot to Poppen deep up the right sideline. Poppen jumped over his defender, ripped the ball out of the air, and took off down the field with two Panther defenders in-chase. They caught him just short of the end zone.
“We knew we had them on their heels,” said Riddle of the decision to go for the deep throw. “It was even that point and we wanted to catch them off guard. Coach called the play and we had to execute.”
The Wildcat offense proceeded to sprint down the field and get on the ball. Riddle took the snap, slid to the left, and sprinted toward the end zone on a Tim Tebow-esk “Wildcat” play.
And then Riddle went airborne. His diving touchdown pushed the ‘Cats ahead 21-14.
Six plays, 150 yards, 120 seconds, 14 points, the lead, the momentum, and the silence of the Chapman fans. Ah, the euphoria of football at its finest.
Riddle finished the game with solid stats. He completed 17-of-26 pass attempts, and racked up 268 yards and three total touchdowns in the game (two passing and one rushing).
The Linfield defense did their job in holding off the Chapman offense for the rest of the game. That the ‘Cats offense had a plethora of three-and-outs besides those two quick scoring drives, so the ‘Cats defense took a majority of the snaps during the game. The D only gave up two scores, which is pretty good for the circumstances.
Defensive end Alex Hoff and defensive tackle Marq Randle stood out on the defensive side of the ball. Hoff contributed three sacks while Randle chalked up two. They disrupted the Panthers’ backfield throughout the game.
The defensive performance was especially impressive considering only ONE defensive player from last season’s starting defense returned to the team this year. The ‘Cats graduated 10 starting defenders.
Equipment manager Mack Farag said it best, commenting, “it is hard to tell who is even who out there. There are so many new faces.”
When a team loses that much senior leadership, it’s sometimes difficult to rebound, yet the ‘Cats feel as though they are finding their groove.
“We have a lot of guys stepping up into new positions. We have a good mix of guys who can be vocal and guys who are more the lead by example type,” said senior defensive tackle Seth Fults. “The young guys, especially the freshmen’s ability to buy in right away, has been impressive.”
This type of camaraderie will be vital for a top-ranked team like Linfield if and when they make the playoffs.
Though we expected a wider margin, the tight result should help them in the long run. These young starters made a second-half comeback, scoring 14 unanswered points.
It was an emotional win. This type of adversity — and overcoming that adversity — is what bonds a group of young men. This will be a game they look back on at the end of the season.
“We have a lot to improve on,” said Riddle. “But those seniors have everyone bought in. We have that one goal of being as good as we can be. We made things happen. The offense trusted the defense and the defense trusted the offense. The win felt great.”
Riddle and the ‘Cats will return to California next weekend to face the University of Redlands.