The 1997 football team experienced one of the most successful seasons in the program’s history. Willamette finished the year in the NAIA Championship game, before falling to Findlay (Ohio), 14-7. The team was 13-1 overall, led the NAIA in scoring defense during the regular season and finished second in the NAIA in total defense. Willamette outscored its opponents, 470-167, including a 205-27 advantage against conference foes. WU also featured the first woman to play and score in a college football game in Liz Heaton, who scored two extra points against Linfield on Oct. 18. The Bearcats achieved the highest ranking by a WU football team in a final poll by finishing #2 in the nation. Willamette won the Northwest Conference of Independent College (NCIC) title with a 5-0 record.
Along the way, the Bearcats annihilated many school records. On offense, the team still holds the following records: most rushing yards in a game, 554 versus Montana Tech on Dec. 6; most rushing yards in a season, 3,940; most rushing attempts in a season, 744; most rushing touchdowns in a season, 49; most total yards in a season, 5,802; most plays in a season, 969; most touchdowns in a 10-game season, 53; most touchdowns including the postseason, 67; and most first downs in a season, 296.
On special teams, additional WU records were set for most punt returns in a season at 49 and for most punt return yards in a season at 488. On defense, the team set the following records: fewest rushing yards allowed in a
10-game season, 680; fewest passing yards allowed in a 10-game season, 1,215; fewest total yards allowed in a season, 1,895; and most interceptions in a season, 23.