Willamette Set to Host Occidental in NCAA Football Playoffs

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

SALEM, ORE. -- Willamette University will open the NCAA Division III Football Playoffs by hosting Occidental College at McCulloch Stadium at 12 p.m. (PST) on Saturday, Nov. 22. Willamette is 10-0 on the season, while Occidental is 9-0 overall.

"It's really an honor to represent the Northwest," said Willamette Head Coach Mark Speckman. "We're happy for our seniors, happy for our team and happy for our community."

The winner of the Willamette-Occidental game will play the winner of the first round game between defending national champion the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (9-1) and St. John's University, Minn. (8-2). The round of 16 game will be played on Saturday, Nov. 29.

Willamette is the #1 seed and Occidental is the #2 seed in the West Region. The NCAA pairs first round games with an emphasis on geographic proximity and with an effort to limit overall travel costs.

"The seeding part of it is kind of a surprise," Speckman said regarding the #1 vs. #2 pairing. He added that WU anticipated Occidental might be the Bearcats' first opponent and that "you've got to play everyone at some point. We're in. We're at home. It doesn't get much better than that."

WU and Occidental met in the NCAA Playoffs in 2004. The Tigers defeated the Bearcats, 28-14, in Los Angeles, Calif. This year, the match-up is the only first round game between two undefeated teams. There are a total of eight undefeated teams in the overall bracket.

"It's our 11th game," Speckman said. "It's a bonus. Everybody we play is going to be good. Thirty-one playoff teams will end the season with a loss. Our goal is to win it ... to be that last team."

The Bearcats have achieved Willamette's sixth undefeated regular season record. The first two undefeated teams were in the early years of intercollegiate football (2-0-1 in 1896; 3-0-0 in 1901).

More recently, Willamette earned undefeated regular season records in 1960 (8-0-0, no postseason), 1968 (9-0-0, finished 9-1 with loss in NAIA Semifinals) and 1997 (10-0, finished 13-1 with loss in NAIA Championship game). This year's team is WU's first undefeated squad since the Bearcats began competing in NCAA Division III in 1998.

The 2008 'Cats are led by senior quarterback Grant Leslie (Bainbridge Island, WA/Bainbridge HS). Leslie completed 86 of 149 passing (57.7%) for 1,381 yards and 13 touchdowns. He led Northwest Conference starting quarterbacks with a 161.68 passing efficiency rating.

Willamette's top rushers have been tailback Deon Horne (Jr., Issaquah, WA/Liberty HS) and flanker Merben Woo (Sr., Salinas, CA/North Salinas HS/Hartnell College). Horne has carried the ball 106 times for 740 yards (7.0 avg.) and nine touchdowns. Woo has rushed 84 times for 673 yards (8.0 avg.) and eight touchdowns.

Woo also leads the Bearcats in pass receiving. He has achieved 32 catches for 641 yards (20.0 avg.) and six touchdowns. He is WU's leading scorer with 14 touchdowns for 84 points.

Place-kicker and punter Mitchell Rowan (Fr., Cotati, CA/Rancho Cotate HS) has converted 52 of 56 extra points (school records for PATs made and attempted). He also has put through 5 of 7 field goals tries and has averaged 38.4 yards per punt, with 15 of 36 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Senior inside linebacker Tommy Grove (Moccasin, CA/Sonora HS/Butte College) ranks first on the WU team in tackles. He has recorded 42 unassisted tackles and 46 assists for 88 total tackles this year. Jack Bevins (Sr., ILB, Park City, UT/Park City HS) follows Grove on the defensive chart with 82 total tackles (36 unassisted, 46 assists).

WU has scored 423 points (42.3 avg.) to break the school record for points in a 10-game season. The Bearcats also have earned 398.5 total yards per game, including 254.5 rushing yards per contest. WU's defense has limited opponents to 17.0 points and 313.2 total yards per game.

"I'm most proud that this team has played well in every game," Speckman said. "We've been a pretty consistent team all year long. All three phases of the the game have really improved and pitched in. It's a good team and we have a lot of guys who contribute."

Occidental has averaged 39.1 points per game, while giving up 18.4 points per game. Quarterback Justin Goltz (Sr.) has completed 130 of 197 passes (66.0%) for 1,832 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has a passing efficiency rating of 159.49.

Running back Jason Haller (Sr.) has rushed for 640 yards on 80 carries (8.0 avg., 12 TDs), while Goltz has gained 598 yards on 74 carries (8.1 avg., 7 TDs). Bryan Fiorito (So., RB) has carred the ball 99 times for 495 yards and 11 touchdowns. Top receivers are Chris Washington (Jr., WR) with 47 catches for 573 yards (6 TDs) and Jason Lehman (Jr., WR) with 29 catches for 529 yards (5 TDs).

The Tigers have six players with more than 30 tackles on defense. Patrick Sarkissian (Jr., LB) ranks first on the team with 48 total tackles. J.D. Caisulli (Sr., DB) has made 40 total tackles (22 unassisted) and trails only Sarkissian on the tackle chart.

The NCAA Division III Playoffs will last five consecutive weekends. Winners in each of the four Regional brackets will meet in the national semifinals, with the top two teams playing in Stagg Bowl XXXVI for the National Championship on Dec. 20 in Salem, Va.

Merben Woo has caught 32 passes for 641 yards and has rushed for 673 rushing on 84 carries.

Merben Woo has caught 32 passes for 641 yards and has rushed for 673 rushing on 84 carries.