‘On top of the world’: Panthers outlast Linfield in three overtimes

Running back Tanner Mendoza had over 170 yards rushing in Chapman’s 68-65 victory over Linfield College Nov. 23. Photo by Kali Hoffman

They were completely unfazed. They bore grins, sure; telltale signs of sweet victory. But there wasn’t a hint of incredulity on the faces of quarterback Jonston MacIntyre, running back Tanner Mendoza, or linebacker Dillon Keefe. Their responses in this postgame presser were cheerful, but business-like. They did what needed to be done.

It was almost as if this Nov. 23 press conference was held after a standard, pleasant Saturday noon victory with little flash or substance. It was almost as if it hadn’t been held after Chapman’s first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) playoff victory in history, in an off-the-wall, ludicrous game. It was almost as if they hadn’t just scored 68 points, or given up 65, or went into three overtimes in their first-round matchup against Oregon’s Linfield College.

“Our attitude coming into this one was, ‘Burn the boats,’” said head coach Bob Owens, who sat to the right of MacIntyre, Mendoza and Keefe at the press conference.

This sounded rather familiar. After the team’s practice Thursday, Owens had told The Panther of that same three-word philosophy going into the matchup with Linfield. Meanwhile, at the start of the fourth quarter, players yelled the phrase from the sidelines in the midst of a tie game. So what, in Thor’s name, was behind this war cry that has now become so entrenched within the team?

Keefe leaned into the mic. 

“Storytime,” he said with a grin. 

“Basically, it’s the tactic that the Vikings used. When they would go to wars, they’d burn their ships,” Keefe said. “So when they’d go invade their enemy territory, they’d burn ships and the only way that they were going to survive that battle is that they win that battle or they die.”

Evidently, the players had done their research. Here’s another bit of history: the 68-65 final score in Chapman’s victory came nine points away from being the highest cumulative single-game point total in Division III history. Needless to say, a heck of a lot of ships were burned.

Saturday’s game was the type of affair that made the 1,221 fans in attendance throw up their arms in a disbelieving array of emotions after nearly every possession. It was a hard-fought battle, a back-and-forth seesaw affair, with Keefe scoring a touchdown both off a fumble recovery and in a designed run play as a member of the offense – and that was all before the fourth quarter. That’s when all hell broke loose.  

The victory was seemingly tucked away safely into Chapman’s back pocket after a 10-yard pass from MacIntyre floated into the waiting arms of receiver Wyatt Hardin in the end zone, a score that put the Panthers up 48-41 with just 1:15 remaining on the clock. Yet Linfield quarterback Wyatt Smith, who threw for over 400 yards in this game, calmly marched the Wildcats back the other way, culminating in a touchdown run by running back Artie Johnson with just four seconds left in regulation.

“If you were a spectator, it was a pretty awesome game to watch,” Owens said. “But if you were in the middle of it, it’s like being right in the middle of a storm.”

The slugfest carried past the fourth quarter. With NCAA overtime rules eschewing kickoffs in favor of teams starting with the ball at the 25-yard line, it didn’t take long for Smith to punch the ball into the end zone himself with a 1-yard keeper, putting Linfield ahead 55-48. To make matters worse, on Chapman’s ensuing possession, MacIntyre was injured on a scramble, screaming in frustration as he limped off the field. Their entire season stood on quarterback Reed Vettel’s lanky shoulders, staring a fourth-and-14-yard situation dead in the crosshairs. It was the Panthers’ turn to look finished.

Nope. Vettel threw a spiral up to Hardin, who secured the ball in the end zone to yet again tie the game, bringing with it a second overtime.

If you were in the middle of it, it’s like being right in the middle of a storm.

Bob Owens, head coach

Shadows from the Baldwin Family Pavilion, where the fans were seated, had begun to creep across the turf at Wilson Field. The sun slowly lowering – the time steadily marching onward – seemed to somehow desensitize, normalize, the insanity of the struggle.

It was hardly a surprise when Keefe – classified as a defensive player – lined up in the backfield, took a toss from Vettel behind the line of scrimmage and threw a 25-yard touchdown to a wide-open Spencer Corona, Keefe’s third touchdown of the day. Two of the scores came on the offensive end, a role Keefe said he’d been practicing as a backup plan ever since running backs Marcos Reyes and Isaiah Woods suffered injuries.

“I’ve seen very few players do that,” said Linfield head coach Joseph Smith on Keefe’s dual-threat role. “He looked great running the football, looked great throwing the football. He had a heck of a game.”

Of course, Linfield immediately scored when they received the ball and the game entered a third overtime, upon which they mustered a field goal to bring their advantage to 65-62.

But this gave the Panthers an opportunity, finally, to not just match blow-for-blow, but to clinch the game with a touchdown. And as Mendoza assumed his place in the backfield on a first-and-10 at the 13-yard-line – having pounded his way to 160 yards on the ground already – he received a handoff, burst through a seam and juked his way into Chapman and Division III history.

“I saw that we had our tackle out on the left side blocking downfield,” Mendoza said at the press conference after the game. “I deked the guy inside, went out, put a hand in his face and just trotted into the end zone.”

Pandemonium ensued. Chapman players on the sidelines and on the field rushed each other like two Medieval-era armies and exchanged a hospital bill’s worth of chest bumps. The stands let out one condensed bellow of relief. Somehow, impossibly, this game had ended with the Panthers still standing.

Head coach Bob Owens addresses the team after their win. Photo by Kali Hoffman

On Thursday, I spoke to Chapman athletic director Terry Boesel. Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game, he’d told The Panther, this team had accomplished more than any other in the program’s history.

“We’re doing a lot of firsts this season for football: first time we’ve went undefeated in the regular season, first time we’ve hosted an NCAA playoff game, first time we’ve been ranked No. 1 in the West Region,” Boesel said.

Add another first to that list – first team to win an NCAA playoff game. But, of course, the Panthers remain unfazed. They’re ready to burn more boats. 

“We’re on top of the world right now,” Mendoza said. “We are just loving this season, loving each other.

The Panthers will take on Saint John’s University (MN) Nov. 30. Check back Nov. 24 for a matchup analysis between the two teams.