Early exit for Linfield football


JJ Anderson

Blake Eaton scrambles away from an attempted tackle by a Bethel defender.

The Linfield football season came to a screeching halt Saturday afternoon at Maxwell Field. With a stout defense and a potent offense, the visiting No. 20 Bethel University Royals upset the No. 5 Wildcats 30-13 in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

The Royals defense conceded scoring drives on the Wildcats’ first three offense drives, but stiffened up, not allowing any points for the final 37 minutes and 45 seconds. The lone Linfield touchdown came on a trick play, resulting in a touchdown pass from receiver Joel Valadez to fellow receiver Devon Murray. 

Valadez also led the Wildcats in receiving with 54 yards on five receptions.

Linfield quarterback Blake Eaton was under duress all day by the Royals defensive front, getting sacked six times. Eaton finished the day with a season-low 161 yards on 19-for-28 passing and two interceptions to Bethel defensive back Anthony Hockett in the end-zone. This was Eaton’s first game without a passing touchdown all season. 

Travis Swanson attempts to rush Bethel’s left tackle Saturday afternoon. (JJ Anderson)

Coming into the matchup averaging just south of 159 rushing yards per game, the Linfield ground game never quite found its momentum, garnering just 89 yards against the Royal defense. Running back Connor Mcnabb led the Wildcats with 93 yards on 17 carries. 

“Offensively, we couldn’t move the ball with as much regularity as we were used to,” Linfield head coach Joseph Smith said in the post-game press conference.

For Bethel, quarterback Jaran Roste was an efficient 19-for-24 through the air for 214 yards and three passing touchdowns. Roste also ran for 27 yards and a touchdown. 

Receiver Joey Kidder led the Rebels receiving core with five receptions for 107 yards and three touchdowns, including a 65-yard touchdown reception with 10:37 left in the fourth quarter to put the Rebels up 30-13. 

Whereas the Wildcats committed five penalties for 33 yards in the contest, the Royals played a scratch-free brand of football, not committing a single penalty all afternoon. 

“They’re a ‘don’t make mistakes’ type of team,” Smith said. 

Throughout the season, the Linfield offense has been the beneficiary of short fields, either by forced turnovers or special teams plays. 

Blake Rybar makes one of his team-high nine tackles against the Royals. (JJ Anderson)

“The story of the game is two turnovers to none. We didn’t enjoy any short fields this game, like we had been getting through special teams and turnovers this season. They [Bethel] did a great job of that. That’s the power of having no turnovers and being very good on coverage teams,” Smith said. 

Northwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year Blake Rybar, led the Wildcat defense in tackles with nine. Linebacker Blaze Holani had the only sack of the day for the Linfield defense. 

Linfield ended its season as the NWC champion for the 11th time in 12 seasons. With this result, Bethel will move on to play Mary Hardin-Baylor next Saturday. 

This story was updated on Dec. 1, 2022, at 2:05 p.m. to correct the nickname for Bethel University. Their nickname is the Royals, not the Rebels.