On Saturday, the Willamette University football squad marched with a new coach and new energy down to La Verne, CA, to face the University of La Verne (ULV) Leopards on an absolutely scorching 100 degree Fahrenheit day. The opening game was not only notable for being the first time that two women student-athletes on different teams played against each other in a college football game, but it is also notable for being Willamette’s first game under the direction of the new head coach, Isaac Parker.
Both teams came out guns-a-blazing, lighting up the first quarter scoring a combined 36 points by the time the first 15 minutes ended. ULV started the scoring capping a 56-yard drive with a 19-yard pass with 11:04 left in the first quarter. WU responded with a seven-play, 75-yard drive of their own, finished off with a 15-yard pass from quarterback senior Mathew Castaneda to wide receiver Atkins School of Management student Jordan Jenkins, catching his first of three touchdowns of the day. ULV was then able to block the extra point kick and return it for two points, extending their lead to 9-6. The two teams traded scores again, both scoring seven points. ULV scored on a touchdown from the Willamette a 24-yard drive, and WU scored on a 7-yard pass from Castaneda to sophomore wide receiver Kodiak Hussey, bringing the score to 16-14. ULV closed out the first quarter with a 59-yard kickoff return followed with a 22-yard run to the endzone, ending the quarter with a score of 23-13 in ULV’s favor.
After the back-and-forth of the first quarter, the game slowed down considerably. WU’s offense slowed, with Castaneda throwing an interception. The defense came up big, with a huge 4th down, stop forcing a turnover-on-downs. WU took immediate advantage, utilizing play-action heavily, scoring on back-to-back drives. With both touchdowns, Jenkins made it look easy, completely blocking out the cornerblocks and hauling in touchdown passes with 5:50 and 2:22 left in the quarter, allowing WU to take the lead for the first time in the game, 27-23. Castenada said of Jenkins, “When you have a guy as big and physical as he is it makes certain things a lot easier.” It looked as if WU was going to go into the half with the lead, but a couple of costly penalties allowed La Verne to drive 67 yards down the field and enter the half with the lead, 30-27.
ULV came out of the half with a spark on offense. They ran the ball down Willamette’s throat and scored a rushing touchdown in only two minutes into the half. Not to falter, the offensive trident of Castenada, Jenkins and running-back sophomore Dylan Sparks helped drive the ball downfield, allowing senior Caine Farmer to score on a 21-yard touchdown pass. This cut the lead down to four, with ULV still leading 37-33.
Before ULV’s next drive, WU defensive coordinator Buster Davis had a pep talk with the defensive team, needing them to come up with defensive stops to keep the game close. The talk seemed to work, as the defense earned two consecutive stops. Then, unfortunately, the defensive stands did not pan out offensively. After the first stop, the offense had a three-and-out. The second drive was promising, with Sparks and Castenada running the ball to ULV’s side of the field. The drive was cut short with ULV intercepting Castaneda in the endzone.
This sequence of events boosted ULV, as they drove down the field and scored with 7:32 left in the game, bringing the score to 43-33. The 12-play, 80-yard drive that took almost six minutes off the clock seemed to take all the momentum away from WU. Neither the WU offense nor the defense could get anything else started as WU punted the ball away with 5:50 left in the game and never got the ball back.
Despite the loss, the team is proud and ready to continue. “We kept it a game for a long time…there were ups and there were downs, and in the downs we didn’t really fold,” Coach Parker commented. “A lot of teams that are used to losing don’t respond that way usually. So that made me feel good.”
“We fought until the end and believed in our new system,” Castenada said, “There is excitement with this team again and it is something that has been missing the past couple of years.”
The Bearcats will next take on Occidental College in their home opener at McCulloch Stadium on Sep. 21 at 12 p.m. (PST).