Bearcats Outplay Cobbers to Defeat Concordia, 35-21

By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University defense forced five turnovers -- including a 100-yard interception return -- and Kyle Johnson (So., TB, Tualatin, OR/ Tualatin HS) scored three touchdowns, as the Bearcats defeated visiting Concordia College-Moorhead, 35-21, at McCulloch Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 6. It was the season opener for both teams.

Johnson, playing in his first game since transferring from Assumption College (Mass.), carried the ball 13 times and gained a team-high 61 yards for the Bearcats. He scored twice in the first quarter on a 3-yard run at 11:33 and a 4-yard run with 2:19 on the clock. He added a 1-yard run at the 5:45 mark of the third quarter to complete a 17-play, 74-yard drive at the start the second half.

The game's longest play was provided by WU cornerback Jeff Kahler (So., Honolulu, HI/Saint Louis School/Whitworth University), who intercepted a pass two yards into Willamette's end zone and returned it for a touchdown. He was credited with a 100-yard return. In college, returns from an end zone are measured from the goal line.

Kahler's interception set a WU record for distance and was aided by two solid blocks from teammates after he passed the midfield stripe. The previous Bearcat record for an interception return was 96 yards by Tom Williams in 1969.

While Johnson led WU's rushing attack, the Willamette defense kept forcing turnovers. Three of the five turnovers were in the first quarter, when Concordia quarterback Jesse Nelson was picked off twice by Lukkes Gilgan (Jr., FS, Sherwood, OR/Sherwood HS).

Gilgan forced the third turnover, a fumble by fullback Nick Birchem to set up WU's second score. Arlin Taylor (So., SS, Spring Valley, CA/Steele Canyon HS) recovered the ball at the Cobbers' 27-yard line. Merben Woo (Sr., FL, Salinas, CA/North Salinas HS/Hartnell College) scampered 23 yards on the next play, followed by Johnson's 4-yard run to the end zone.

Nelson's first interception was on the game's third play from scrimmage. Gilgan returned the pick 15 yards to the Concordia 28. Six plays later, Johnson crossed the goal line from three yards out, as WU took a 7-0 lead.

WU starting quarterback Ryan Whitcomb (Jr., QB, Oak View, CA/Nordhoff HS/College of the Canyons) left the game late in the first quarter with a leg injury. His status will be determined later.

Senior quarterback Grant Leslie (Bainbridge Island, WA/Bainbridge HS) replaced Whitcomb as the Bearcats' signal caller. Last year, Leslie suffered a season-ending leg injury in the fifth game and was replaced by Whitcomb for the remainder of the season.

After the Bearcats took a 14-0 lead, the Cobbers moved closer with a pair of field goals by Carl Hauser in the second quarter. He connected on a 29-yarder at the 12:24 mark and concluded the half by kicking a 39-yarder with 19 seconds left. WU held a 14-6 advantage at the break.

Willamette extended the margin to 21-6 with its mammoth drive to open the second half. The 17-play possession nearly ended after one first down, as a holding penalty and a false start put WU in a 3rd-and-22 at the Concordia 45.

On third down, however, Leslie threw a deep pass down the left sideline. The pass was intended for Woo, but he was hauled down by a Concordia defender. The resulting pass interference call gave WU a 1st-and-10 at the Cobbers' 30-yard line.

After WU gained a first down, Leslie was sacked for an eight-yard loss. Two plays later, on 3rd-and-14, Leslie tossed a 22-yard pass that Woo hauled in near the sideline and just one yard away from the end zone. Johnson scored on a 1-yard run two plays later.

Concordia answered with an 8-play, 58-yard drive that ended with a 26-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Nick Alton. Hauser kicked the extra point to pull the Cobbers within eight points at 21-13.

The Cobbers got the ball back at their own 18-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. On fourth down, David Williamson managed just a 25-yard punt, which Woo fair caught at the Concordia 45.

James Yamashita (Sr., WR, Walnut Creek, CA/Los Lomas HS/Diablo Valley College) dashed 25 yards on a reverse for Willamette on the next play. After a false start, the Bearcats picked up 23 yards on a carry by Johnson, then reached the end zone on a 2-yard jaunt by Marcus Woo (So., FL,Cupertino, CA/Monta Vista HS).

Freshman place-kicker and punter Mitchell Rowan (Cotati, CA/Rancho Cotate HS) kicked the extra point for a 28-13 lead. Rowan went 5 for 5 on PATs and averaged 40.8 yards on six punts. He also sent all six kickoffs inside the 10-yard line, including two to the end zone and another to the 1-yard line.

Two Concordia possessions later, the Cobbers drove from the WU 38 to the WU 7 before Kahler's interception on 2nd-and-Goal ended the threat and clinched the win for the Bearcats.

Concordia outgained Willamette 375-256 in total yards and ran 83 plays to just 53 for the Bearcats. The five turnovers by the Cobbers, plus no turnovers and an efficient offense by Willamette, kept Concordia playing catch-up throughout the game.

For WU, Johnson's 61 rushing yards were followed by 58 from Merben Woo and 32 by Marcus Woo. Overall, the 'Cats rushed 43 times for 196 yards. Leslie finished 6 of 8 passing for 53 yards and Whitcomb was 1 for 2 for seven yards before being injured. Johnson caught three passes for 16 yards.

Birchem topped Concordia-Moorhead's rushing game with 18 carries for 77 yards. Running back Cory Johnson tacked on 68 yards on 10 carries and Nelson finished with 18 rushes for 46 yards.

Nelson was 17 of 35 passing with three interceptions. He threw for 175 yards, while Alton led the Cobbers with five catches for 63 yards. Kyle Hilleren grabbed four passes for 35 yards. Nelson completed just 48.6% of his passes, after converting 60.3% (117 of 194, 6 ints.) for 1,609 yards and 14 touchdowns during the entire 2007 season.

Willamette's defense had three players with double-digit tackles. Tommy Grove (Sr., ILB, Moccasin, CA/Sonora HS/Butte JC) ranked first on the tackle chart with 21 total stops, including 15 assists. Jack Bevins (Sr., ILB, Park City, UT/Park City HS) provided 13 total tackles and Taylor contributed 11 total tackles.

Two Concordia-Moorhead defenders earned nine tackles each. They were middle linebacker Isaac Berling (5 solo, 4 assists) and outside linebacker Jay Thoreson (4 solo, 5 assists).

The Bearcats will play their first road game of the season on Saturday, Sept. 13 at California Lutheran University. Game time in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is set for 1 p.m. (PDT). Last year, Willamette defeated the Kingsmen, 14-7, at McCulloch Stadium.

Photos included with this story are by Naomi Stukey (www.naomistukey.com), Willamette athletic photographer.
BOX SCORE
Willamette University 35, Concordia University 21
Jeff Kahler (right) intercepts a pass in the end zone. Kahler returned the ball 100 yards for a touchdown.

Jeff Kahler (right) intercepts a pass in the end zone. Kahler returned the ball 100 yards for a touchdown.

Lukkes Gilgan runs with the ball following one of his two interceptions against Concordia-Moorhead.

Lukkes Gilgan runs with the ball following one of his two interceptions against Concordia-Moorhead.

Merben Woo makes a diving catch near the goal line to set up Willamette's third touchdown.

Merben Woo makes a diving catch near the goal line to set up Willamette's third touchdown.

Kyle Johnson hands the ball to an official after scoring his third touchdown.

Kyle Johnson hands the ball to an official after scoring his third touchdown.