Bearcats take another step towards being a playoff-caliber team

If it’s true that you have to play the best to be the best, then the Willamette University football team is on the right track after a 6-4 season in 2002 and tying for second place in the Northwest Conference at 3-2.

The Bearcats played one of their toughest schedules in school history — facing three eventual national playoff teams (two of those went unbeaten) and playing six games on the road — and nearly made the national playoffs themselves.

Willamette made substantial gains from its 4-5 season in 2001 and with the possibility of 16 starters returning in 2003, the Bearcats could be back in the NCAA Division III playoff picture.

In Mark Speckman’s fifth season as head coach, his Bearcats nearly led the nation in rushing after posting school records of 3500 yards and 350.0 yards per game. Willamette also churned out 459.5 yards of total offense and 37.5 points per game, numbers that ranked 12th and 18th nationally.

The Bearcats also witnessed a dramatic improvement in their passing game, and the young defense, beset by key injuries most of the season, played strong down the stretch.

“I was very happy with this team,” said Speckman. “We traveled great. The retention level was great. Their morale was great. They were fun to coach.”

Part of the reason the Bearcats were fun to coach was how they dominated most teams with their ‘Fly’ offense. Led by senior running back Drew Ecklund, who broke Willamette single-season records for rushing (1240) and all-purpose yards (1721), the Bearcats were the top-ranked rushing team in the nation for two weeks.

In addition to Ecklund, who averaged 8.3 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns, junior flanker Greg Reed ran for 812 yards and nine scores and senior fullback Justin Peterson rushed for 742 yards and six TDs.

Bearcat quarterbacks Tyler Gaspard and John Brannon shared the role of starter all season and combined to complete 47.1 percent of their passes for 1095 yards and 10 scores. In 2001, those same QBs completed 40.0 percent of their passes for 748 yards and three TDs.

The recipient of many of those aerials in 2002 went to sophomore wide receiver Brett Meyer, who caught 21 passes for 500 yards and three touchdowns.

“Getting production out of our quarterback position was a huge improvement, and our perimeter blocking improved,” said the coach. “Probably the most important thing though was we cut down on turnovers, although the last two games we had a few.”

On defense, the Bearcats never were at full strength. Senior linebacker Colin Campbell, the NWC leader in tackles in 2001, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season. Omar Young, a rover who was an honorable mention all-conference performer as a freshman, played in just seven games and was never completely healthy.

“Before the season started, we said we can’t lose Colin and we can’t lose Omar, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Speckman.

But sophomore Logan Lord filled in admirably for Campbell, who has the option of coming back to school next year to play his fourth season. Sophomore defensive end Nate Matlock and junior cornerback Marcus Boards were amongst the best in the conference at their position. Boards intercepted an NWC-best six passes and Matlock nearly broke Willamette’s single-season record for quarterback sacks with 11.

“Defensively, we did a good job of pressuring the quarterback (WU led the conference with 32 sacks) and getting turnovers (35),” Speckman said.

The area of special teams got a big boost from Duncan Libby, who played for WU from 1998-2000 and returned for his fourth year with a flourish. He tied his own school record with nine point-after-touchdown kicks in a 63-24 win over Puget Sound and ended up the season with four more school standards:
Most PAT conversions by an individual in a season: 40
Most PAT attempts by an individual in a season: 43
Most PAT conversions by and individual in a career: 99
Most PAT attempts by an individual in a career: 110
One of the highlights of the season was beating Pacific Lutheran on the road for the first time since 1996.

“I think the respect for our program is back and I think our kids feel they’re a part of a top-tier team,” Speckman concluded. “We’re excited about next year.”

Willamette players named to the Northwest Conference first team include: running back Drew Ecklund (Sr., San Luis Obispo HS, Calif.); slotback Greg Reed (Jr., Vanden HS, Calif.); offensive linemen Isaac Parker (Sr., Kamehameha HS, Hawaii), Billy Joe Murray (Jr., Eldorado HS, Nev.), and Morgan Smith (Jr., Kentwood HS, Wash.); defensive lineman Nate Matlock (So., Capital HS, Idaho); defensive back Marcus Boards (Jr., Vista HS, Calif.) and kicker Duncan Libby (Sr., Seattle Prep HS, Wash.).

Named to the NWC second team were: running back Justin Peterson (Sr., Mercer Island HS, Wash.); offensive lineman Nate Oltmans (Jr., Boulder HS, Colo.); linebacker Ken Halpin (Jr., North Medford HS) and defensive back Trebor Struble (Jr., Capital HS, Idaho).

Earning honorable mention recognition by the NWC were: wide receiver Brett Meyer (So., Oregon City HS); defensive lineman Josh Vierra (Jr., Oak Grove HS, Calif.); linebacker John McDowell (Sr., McKenzie HS), defensive lineman Blake Cam (So., Eagle Point HS) and defensive back Kefense Hynson (Sr., St. Mary’s HS, Oakland, Calif.).

Sept. 7 Redlands Salem W, 52-28 DNP
Sept. 14 Mary Hardin-Baylor Belton, Texas L, 42-26 DNP
Sept. 21 Humboldt State Arcata, Calif. L, 42-28 DNP
Sept. 28 Menlo Salem W, 52-30 DNP
Oct. 5 Chapman (Calif.) Orange, Calif. W, 52-21 W, 38-14
Oct. 12 Whitworth* Spokane, Wash. L, 44-31 (OT) L, 17-14
Oct. 19 Puget Sound* Salem W, 63-24 W, 43-20
Oct. 26 BYE
Nov. 2 Pacific Lutheran* Puyallup, Wash. W, 30-23 L, 13-0
Nov. 9 Lewis & Clark* Salem W, 21-14 W, 42-20
Nov. 16 Linfield* McMinnville L, 32-20 L, 20-13
* Northwest Conference game

Linfield (9-0) 5 0
WILLAMETTE (6-4) 3 2
Whitworth (7-3) 3 2
Pacific Lutheran (5-4) 3 2
Lewis & Clark (3-6) 1 4
Puget Sound (0-8) 0 5