Monday, September 10, 2018

‘Cats let the Saints slip away in Helena.

Senior Linebacker Patrick Pipitone was named NWC Defensive Player of the Week
This past Saturday was a tough one for the ‘Cats.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it, or try to spin it, I’ll call it like I saw it. The outcome out in Helena was a terrible loss for Linfield.  Probably the worst loss since the 2014 Willamette game.  Yeah, there were a few factors that slid the hurdles up a little higher for Linfield to clear going into this contest, but the ‘Cats were well aware of these when they signed up for this game.  The program knew it was going to be a long two day bus ride to get the Helena, the program knew that Carroll would have more time to get their stuff together having two games under their belt. We could go on and on, but at the end of the day, our ‘Cats should have handled Carroll on Saturday and flat out didn’t.  I think everyone was disappointed in the end result.

With that said, there is a huge amount of talent on this roster.  You saw that with Nnoli showing flashes of his 2017 form, Ruhl being outrageously good out of the backfield, Mackle coming up with picks and laying the hammer, the ‘Cats defensive front having periods of complete control at the line of scrimmage, etc, etc.  However, the ‘Cats just couldn’t get into a sustained positive flow where strong play from one side of the ball would transition into the other.  It was an up and down game from both the offense and defense and ‘Cats couldn’t take control. It was frustrating because it’s obvious this roster is capable of much more.

This loss isn’t a death sentence for the 2018 season. The ‘Cats need to turn it around and improve in a number of areas if Linfield wants to be in the NWC title hunt and beyond.  You noticed that I didn’t write “be in the NCAA D3 title hunt” in that last sentence?  Yeah, that was on purpose.  That is how poorly I felt our guys executed against the Saints. Again, I’m not trying to be harsh but real. If the Carroll trend continues, it’s going to be a short season. 

However, if the ‘Cats can quickly improve, do their jobs, win those keys individual battles, and execute there is no reason this team can’t be a major player out in the far west and make a huge playoff run.  The potential is there for this to be a standout football team but it’s 100% up to the players on the roster to turn potential into performance.  I know our guys are going to get it done and we should see a much crisper brand of Linfield football this Saturday.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

Not giving up the fight:  To me, this was a huge take away and what gives me the most confidence that the players and staff will right the ship and get this roster moving in the right direction.  When the ‘Cats went down 14-0 in that 3rd quarter, it sort of felt like 35-0 with how flat the offense looked for the majority of the game.  But the ‘Cats didn’t shrink from the pressure and keep plugging away and eventually started to show some moments of what could be possible for this program.  The will and flight was strong and that is something to build on.

Defensive line play:  The two rush touchdowns allowed were not great, but overall, I think that Linfield has a chance to be an incredibly disruptive front. Multiple players showed flashes of ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage (Stinchcomb, Eteaki, Gomez) with newcomer Travis Swanson made a big impact in his first time suiting up for the ‘Cats. I think the NWC is going to have a hard time with this group in 2018.

Pip: Linfield senior Linebacker, Patrick Pipitone played freaking great for his first career start.  Pip has obviously put in the time and effort to be the guy at Linebacker and it showed with 10 total tackles, 1.5 for loss, and a huge interception on a QB hurry/deflection.

Pass Pro: I thought the pass protection on the whole was strong for the Linfield offense. The ‘Cats chucked it up 54 times on the day and while the Saints were credited with 3 sacks, there was only one real time that the Saints rush immediately got to Smith.

Punting: Flipping the field is going to be a strength for this team all year long and Linfield did a great job of this especially in the 2nd half.

The Bad

Coming up empty early in the Red Zone: As I mentioned above, the ‘Cats left 10 points on the field in that first half and who knows where the game might have gone if Linfield could have capitalized. The ‘Cats have to be killers in this area of the field.

Passing attack rhythm: The Linfield passing could be VERY good but on Saturday it wasn’t the case as the ‘Cats threw for under 50% on the day and just seemed off.  In order for the ‘Cats to get where they need to be, this is a key area that Linfield has to have improvement on in the upcoming week.

Giving up 21 to that Carroll offense: Linfield mostly held Carroll in check but that was a bad offense.  Even if Linfield scored 45 points, giving up 21 to that offense isn’t a great look.  However, most of the game, the Linfield defense dominated the Saints but had three bad series where we allowed Carroll to convert long 3rd downs and then the blown coverage at the end of the game.  If the ‘Cats could have cleaned some of that up, they really could have blanked that Saints offense.

The penalties: There’s no play-by-play in the stats so it’s hard to go back and look at an exact number but Linfield had multiple promising offensive series get stalled with one ill-timed penalty after the next. It killed offense and created way too many 3rd and long situations.

The Ugly

The Final Sequence: That was tough.  The ‘Cats had all the momentum and looked like they were in prime position to either end it in regulation or take the game to overtime and the underthrown deep ball that was picked and the defense turned around and had a miscommunication in the backfield that led to Carroll sticking the dagger in the heart of the ‘Cats. That was just a tough way to end a game that was in total control by Linfield. Hope it was a valuable lesson learned and the team can use it as a launching pad to great things!  Go ‘Cats!

Friday, September 7, 2018

2018 Linfield College Football Season Preview

What a way to kick off the 2018 season!
It’s that time of the year again!  Yes, the air is a little bit cooler in the morning, students are back on campus again, and college football is once again blessing us all.  And that also means college football’s most consistently winning football program is kicking the tires and lighting the fires.  Yes, Linfield football is back and ready to start the 2018 football season with their typical high expectations, some questions marks, and a boat load of talent ready to step into the arena.

In order for us to start exploring the 2018 Wildcats, we need to go back to the end of the 2017 season and see how Linfield got to where they’re at now.  Linfield once again finished their season losing in the second round of the NCAA playoff at UMHB.  The Cru’ would go on to another Stagg Bowl appearance and the ‘Cats were sent back to the drawing board.  However, in so many ways, 2017 was a bumpy ride that eventually turned out to be a hell of a year for the ‘Cats.

2017 was a season told in three different chapters.  Those chapters were driven by the up and down nature of the offense.  The defense for the 2017 Linfield Wildcats was LIGHTS OUT good.  It was a veteran and talent laden defense that was good on all three levels.  You knew each week, you were going to have a shot to win because of that defense and the outstanding year Linfield had kicking and punting the ball. The offense was a different story. At the beginning of 2017, the ‘Cats showed some inconsistency but started to develop a personality as a big play offense especially during that Willamette/Whitworth stretch.

Then due to some key injuries up front and in the skill areas, the Linfield offense had to ready grind away to find points and it wasn’t pleasant. The ‘Cats had to survive and win some fights in a phone booth to keep control of the NWC title chase.

It was during this time that a few critical items fell into place.  At halftime of the PLU overtime game, the Linfield offense was once again scuffling so the coaching staff inserted true Freshman QB Wyatt Smith into the lineup.  Wyatt taking snaps didn’t instantly turn the offensive into a juggernaut but the complexion of the attack changed.  As Smith took more snaps the offensive group started to solidify and it was during that second half against Puget Sound that the offense started to click.  The offensive line was finally getting healthy and Smith’s arm acted as a great counter to Chidubem Nnoli’s legs. By the time Linfield rolled into Pacific, you were looking at a complete football team.
Boom!  The ‘Cats dusted Pacific, and dare I say, easily handled a very talented Hardin-Simmons football team in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs. Linfield was a dangerous football team but once again ran into the brick wall of UMHB. Even with the loss, I was so proud of this team, the players, and the coaches that answer the bell to a number of gut checks in 2017.

So now that we’ve talked about the past, let’s turn our attention to the future with the start of the 2018 season.

I’m sure you’ve already read plenty on the ‘Cats so far and I’m not covering any new ground.  This is a role reversal from the 2017 season, where the offense is the established group, while the defense is going to be featuring a number faces in starting roles.

Obviously Smith is back for his sophomore campaign and he’s the type of player that’s going to get better and better as his career progresses.  Wyatt is a bright guy with a great arm.  He’s not the runner we had with Sam Riddle but Wyatt is far from a statue in the pocket.  Smith will be able to extend plays and move the chains with his legs as well.  He’s be a great field general for this offense.

Setting up shop in the backfield with Smith will be returning All-Region running back Chidubem Nnoli.  The now Junior was out-freaking-standing in his debut year for the ‘Cats. Chidubem has track speed, vision, great feet and wiggle, the guys is a gamebreaker and will be a huge factor for this offense once again in 2018.  However, Nnoli is far from the only weapon Linfield has at running back.  Dawson Ruhl is back for his sophomore season and turned in some great moments from his freshman season with his ability to make guys miss and flashed some tremendous hands out of the backfield that rival most receivers in the region.  We don’t stop there as Sophomores Artie Johnson and Tanner Earhart are now healthy and ready to roll. Both Johnson and Earhart are dudes that could wind up being major contributors to this offensive unit. Honestly, I haven’t seen this much talent at the running back positons at Linfield since the 2000-2003 run with Haberberger, Russel, Williams, and Ford being the core group of ‘Cat backs (all four of those guys are in the top 10 of Linfield career total rushing yards).

On the outside and in the slots, the ‘Cats have six players that will be in the mix in the passing attack. J.D. Lasswell is obviously the man out of that group after coming off his breakout 2017 season.  Tyler Torgerson is back from his knee injury from 2017 and will offer a great outside counter to Lasswell. I think a guy Linfield fans are going to see often is Khory Day, as he is young guy dripping with talent. Slot wise, Keegan Weiss is just filthy.  This guy is going to make so many plays out of nowhere for Linfield this year. To me, he’s like a Brad McKechnie (2002-05).  Not the “star” but if you don’t account for Weiss, he’s going to burn you multiple times a game.  Aiden Wilder has looked very good in the slot in camp after shifting from QB.  I’m really fond of Aiden as a player and person know that he’s going to make himself known this season.  A newcomer to the program is Max Novak who transferred in during the spring. Max is surgical in his rout running and will be a player in this offense.

(Holy crap, I’m 1,200 words in and I haven’t even finished the offense.)

Let’s talk beef. Linfield is going to feature an all-senior offensive line to kick off the 2018 season and I’m excited for this group.  Leading the ‘Cats up front is preseason All-American Dakota Smith at Left Tackle. Smith has looked tremendous in camp and should have an outstanding 2018.  I feel that Gabe Mojarro performance at Center is going to be critical to the success of the Wildcat offense.  Mojarro is a 1st team all-conference talent, and if Gabe can stay healthy, he should be a force in the middle. Returning starting guard Aaron Kokubun is back this season and I’m expecting the big man to have a big year. I’m thrilled for these next two guys as Cody Mitchell and Duncan Mattson will get the starting nods at the other guard and tackle spots.  This is an experienced and talented group of guys and below them is a huge crop of young offensive line talent. I mean the Wildcat staff brought in a group of young studs that will get in the rotation soon and add to this group’s depth.

Two outstanding tight ends in Junior Jacob Calo and Senior Sione Atuekao will round out the offense. Both of these guys can make plays in the passing game but are also both physical players that like mixing it up.

Flipping over to the other side of the ball is a talented but untested group on the defensive line. The ‘Cats lost some fine defensive linemen in Zach Grate and Markus McGovern. Both of these guys will be missed but I think the guys coming back are going to surprise people, and in a good way with their play. Chris Stinchcomb will the anchor up front at the DT position and is primed for an excellent senior campaign.  Joining Stinch is Havili Eteaki who is a playmaker at DT. I’m looking forward to the return of Sam Gomez at DT. Sam started a number of games in 2015 as a freshman, but left the program soon after. However, Sam is back with ‘Cats and will be a difference maker for this defense with his explosiveness.  Out on the ends, Sam Fults and Tony Kraus are both going to be physical bangers that can get after the quarterback.  Also keep an eye on Occidental transfer Travis Swanson out at defensive end as well. The 6’3” Idaho native is long and can close on the QB in a hurry. He could be a guy that makes waves as the season progresses.

Defensive Back wise…man I’m loving this group.  Anthony Guttadauro and Marquis Perrilliat are both proven talents for the ‘Cats and will get their time to shine as fulltime starters at corner.  Adding to that mix is a guy the program was thrilled to pick up in Western Oregon transfer Chris Adamo at corner. Adamo is a player and I have no doubt the Wildcat fanbase is going to get to know his name and number quickly.  Returning back at safety for Linfield Duke Mackle.  I’m calling my shot right now and will say that Duke is going to be an All-American at the end of this season.  IMO, Duke was shorted honors last season by the regional voters.  Mackle came up huge for Linfield time after time in 2017 and it wasn’t a fluke. I’ll be keeping my eye on the Monster spot this year as Tyler Bergeron is back at Linfield after a 6 year absence. Bergeron enlisted in the Marine Corps after the 2012 season and proudly served his country.  But Tyler always wanted to come back and was greeted with open arms.  The defensive staff had high hopes for Tyler in 2012 and that is still the same in 2018.  Over at Rover, you’re going to see both Steven Kwak and Peter Finley in the mix.  Finley can bring the hammer on guys and I love Kwak’s steadiness in the backfield. Steven is an extension of the coaching staff on the field and should pay dividends for the defense this season.

Linebacker is where the ‘Cats have the biggest question marks going into this season. Linfield lost three players from 2017 that were essentially starters since 2015 with Jason Farlow being a 1st Team All-American last year.  Leading the new charge will be Senior Linebacker Patrick Pipitone who that staff has been thrilled about this past spring and fall camp.  Pip will be the quarterback of this defense and should be a major contributor to this team. Sophomore Brock Klosterman has a huge upside and could develop into a dominant player for the Wildcat defense as Brock has all the tools. Junior Taulelei Toledo has stepped up his game and should be the 3rd backer that sees a lot of action for the ‘Cats to start the year.

The Special Team do look to be special for the ‘Cats this season. Back is All-American kicker Willy Warne who looks like he hasn’t missed a beat this past fall camp and punter Colton Ramos will build unto what was an impressive freshman campaign.  Linfield has had All-American punters and kickers in the past but I cannot think of a better kicker/punter combination on the same team in the 20+ years I’ve been around the program.  They are that good.

So with all of that said, what does that potentially mean for the 2018 season?  I don’t have a crystal ball and the season can be unpredictable.  At the top end, if a few key areas can come together, I think this Linfield team could be a serious threat for a deep playoff run.  The talent on the roster is all there. At the worst, the ‘Cats could be a dogfight for the NWC title and their playoff lives. The upside is there for this team and now it’s a matter of getting after it.

I’m not going to get into a game preview this time around and that’s mainly because I haven’t been able to spend a minute watching or researching Carroll.  That’s not a knock on Carroll but more of a statement of where I’m currently at. I do know that the Saints have an incredible pedigree, they have tremendous size and skill, and have two games under their belt to make roster adjustments.  The ‘Cats better bring it tomorrow or they’re going to be sitting at 0-1 and with a dangerous Redlands team coming to the ‘Catdome on what will be a shortened week of preparation (I’m not overselling it, I think Redlands is good). Let’s go ‘Cats!

So on a more personal note.  There have been some people reaching out asking when the game preview is going to come out, etc.  Full disclosure, I have been and will continue to scale back on the writing of the blog.  Life is busy right now and the blog has had to take a major backseat.  And that’s a good thing for my family!  That doesn’t mean my passion for Linfield football has diminished but I have to take care of business.  The mini-highlights will still be delivered weekly and I’m going to try to get a game review/game preview out but don’t be disappointed that is not as consistent as years’ past. Thank you to all of you that have and will continue to support this venture!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Nine Seasons of Catdome Domination.


On December 31st 2009, we review the first full decade of the realignment of the Northwest Conference (The NWC regrouped in 1996 as the Northwest Conference of Independent Colleges (NCIC) and then officially named back to the Northwest Conference in 1998). For an number of years we would take a look at the numbers but slipped last year.  I wanted to bring this back out but with both Pacific and Fox back it didn't seem right to go a full 18 years.

So I decided to narrow the field down to the past 9 seasons (2009-17) where the 'Cats have busted off 9 consecutive NWC titles. Linfield has been incredible for a long time but this 9 year stretch has been downright impressive. Since 2009, Linfield has won 94 total football games and the next closest on the list is Whitworth with 56. That is a 38 game gap between the reigning champ and the second best
team over that period of time.

There are others stats that leap out at you in terms of where Linfield has made their mark.  17 playoff victories, 97 Northwest Conference 1st team honors (nearest team is Willamette with 38), 26 1st team All-Region selections (rest of the conference has 12 combined), The 'Cats a 94.5% home winning percentage (PLU is next with 69.2%)

Another area to look at is the D3football.com All-American totals since 2009.  Linfield has 32 All-Americans honors since 2009, the rest of the Northwest Conference has 12 combined. That's just nasty.

The data is staggering to me when you considered that the Northwest Conference is a darn good conference.  There's no secret why this has happened. It's been consistence that's the program reaches on a yearly basis on the back of hard work.  No shortcuts, no gimmicks.  Linfield will continue to be the team to beat year after year because of the commitment of this staff, players, administration, and support community that do things the right way....the Linfield way. 

Decade Records (2009-17) (I've now included Pacific’s data from the past 8 seasons and FU's 4 years into the mix.  Their percentages are big enough now to include and slot them accordingly.)

Overall Record (Winning Percentage)
Linfield.............94-13  (87.8%)
Whitworth.........56-35   (61.9%)
PLU.................50-32    (60.9%)
Willamette........44-42    (51.1%)
GFU.................17-21  (44.7)  (Since 2014)
Pacific……….31-43   (41.8%) (Since 2010)
L&C................20-61     (24.6%)
UPS................19-62    (24.6%)

NWC Record 
Linfield............57-1     (98.2%)
PLU.................37-21   (63.7%)
Whitworth.........35-23   (60.3%) 
Willamette.......27-31  (46.5%)
GFU..............13-15  (44.2) (Since 2014)
Pacific……….23-29  (44.2%) (Since 2010)
UPS..............12-46   (20.6%)
L&C...............10-48   (17.2%)

Home Record 
Linfield............52-3   (94.5%)
PLU................27-12  (69.2%)
Whitworth......27-18  (60.0%)
GFU.............12-8  (60.0) (Since 2014)
Willamette......22-22  (50.0%)
Pacific……….15-21   (41.6%) (Since 2010)
L&C................12-29  (29.2%)
UPS................12-29  (29.2%)

Road Record 
Linfield..........42-10  (80.7%)
Whitworth.......29-17  (63.0%)
PLU...............23-20  (53.5%)
Willamette.....22-20  (52.3%)
Pacific………16-22 (42.1%) (Since 2010)
GFU.........5-13 (27.8%) (Since 2014)
L&C...............8-32  (20.0%)
UPS..............7-33 (17.5%)

Playoff Record
Linfield.........17-9
PLU.............0-2
Whitworth......0-1

NWC 1st Place Finishes
Linfield............9 (1-tie)
Pacific.......1 (1-tie)

Conference Honors (2009-17)

Coach Of The Year
Linfield..........9

Offense Player of the Year
Linfield.........6
Whitworth.....1
Willamette....1
Lewis & Clark...1

Defensive Player of the Year
Linfield........7
Pacific....1
Willamette....1
GFU............1

NWC 1st Team Players
Linfield.......97  (10.8 per year)
Willamette....38  (4.2 per year)
PLU.............35 (3.9 per year)
Whitworth....32 (3.5 per year)
Pacific…….19  (2.4 per year)
GFU.............9 (2.25 per year)
UPS.............8 (.88 per year)
L&C..............8 (.88 per year)

D3football.com All-American Players
Linfield.......32
Willamette....5
GFU..........3
PLU....1
Whitworth.............1
L&C.............1
UPS..............0
Pacific..........1

D3football.com All-American 1st Team Players
Linfield.......12
L&C.............1
Willamette..............1

Team Statistics (Averages) (2009-17)

(Pacific's totals are averaged by 8 seasons and GFU is averaged at 4 seasons)

Points Per Game
Linfield..........40.6 PPG
Whitworth......32.2 PPG
Willamette...............30.2 PPG
PLU......26.5 PPG
Pacific...........26.3 PPG
UPS...............23.6 PPG
GFU...............23.3 PPG
L&C...............22.6 PPG

Points Allowed Per Game
Linfield..........14.6 PPG
PLU...............20.4 PPG
Willamette....21.8 PPG
GFU...............22.6 PPG
Whitworth....23.6 PPG
Pacific............28.2 PPG
UPS...............36.0 PPG
L&C..............36.8 PPG

Pass Offense Per Game
UPS..............278.8 YPG
Linfield.........269.8 YPG
Pacific........... 244.7 YPG
PLU..............234.8 YPG
Whitworth.....230.3 YPG
L&C..............224.6 YPG
Willamette....208.8 YPG
GFU.............146.9

Pass Defense Per Game
Linfield........182.1 YPG
PLU..............214.0 YPG
Willamette....223.5 YPG
Whitworth.....235.6 YPG
Pacific..........242.6 YPG
GFU..............247.7 YUP
UPS..............249.0 YPG
L&C..............258.7 YPG

Rushing Offense Per Game
Willamette....193.4 YPG
Linfield.......176.3 YPG
PLU.............140.3 YPG
GFU.............138.6 YPG
Whitworth.............137.5 YPG
L&C.............126.0 YPG
Pacific............125.0 YPG
UPS........80.1 YPG

Rushing Defense Per Game
Linfield........95.9 YPG
PLU.............124.1 YPG
GFU.............143.7 YPG
Willamette....152.8 YPG
Pacific.........153.8 YPG
Whitworth....156.5 YPG
L&C.............190.4 YPG
UPS.............191.0 YPG

Total Offense Per Game
Linfield........446.1 YPG
Willamette...402.2 YPG
Whitworth..400.7 YPG
PLU............375.2 YPG
Pacific.............369.6 YPG 
UPS.........359.0 YPG
L&C.........350.5 YPG
GFU.............245.3 YPG

Total Defense Per Game
Linfield........278.0 YPG
PLU.............338.1 YPG 
Willamette....376.3 YPG
Whitworth....388.0 YPG
GFU............391.4 YPG
Pacific.........396.3 YPG
UPS.............440.0 YPG
L&C.............449.1 YPG

Avg. Sacks Per Season
Linfield........44.6
PLU.............25.7
GFU.............23.5
Willamette....23.2
Pacific...........21.8
Whitworth......20.4
L&C.............15.4
UPS.............13.3

Avg. Turnover Margin Per Season
Linfield........+12.4
Whitworth...+8.3
GFU.........+3.8
Willamette...+2.9
PLU............1.7
Pacific...........-0.6
L&C..............-2.6 
UPS............-4.3

Passing TD's Per Season
Linfield..........32.2
Whitworth.........22.4
UPS............20.7
Pacific..........19.5
PLU...........17.7
Willamette.......17.2
L&C.............14.9
GFU............14.5

Rush TD's Per Season
Linfield.......27.1
Willamette.....21.1
Whitworth.......18.9
PLU............14.4
GFU...........13.3
Pacific.........11.9
L&C............11.4
UPS.............6.6

Friday, December 1, 2017

A great season comes to the end of the line in Belton, Texas.


Linfield knew that they were going to have to play a near-perfect game to knock off the defending national champions and current number one team in the country.  But the ‘Cats put themselves behind the eight ball early with a blocked punt deep in their own territory that resulted in a short touchdown for UMHB that made an uphill climb, even more, treacherous the rest of the way. The ‘Cats had a golden opportunity to make it a 10 point game midway through the 3rd quarter but when Linfield wasn’t able to cash in, it was ballgame on Linfield’s 2017 season.

As tough as it was to watch Linfield lose that game, you have to tip your cap to UMHB as that is the best defense I’ve seen in my 20 plus years in watching small college football.  Linfield has lost four games the past two years and all four are to UMHB.  Linfield owned the first four games against the Crusaders, and now, UMHB has turned the tables the last four times out. There is a ton of respect on both sides of the table as a Crusader starter reached out to me via twitter moments after the game with this message:

“I respect everything about yalls program. Y’all always play hard and with class. I love playing y’all and the challenge it is to prepare for y’all.
Much respect and safe travels”

The feeling is mutual young man. I do believe the UMHB has learned a lot in the previous playoff losses in 2014 and 15 to Linfield and they improved those “weak” areas that the ‘Cats had previously exploited to victories in those games. The result is a Crusader program that no longer plays suspect pass defense and a team that doesn’t implode when the spotlight is brightest. On the flipside, I hope that our ‘Cats and our program has learned some hard lessons the past two years on just what Linfield needs to do to get our program back to that extra gear that can take down a team as talented as UMHB.  Yeah, it’s going to be hard to find the speed they possess but I know that Coach Smith and his staff are not content in 2nd round playoff exits.

As for the 2017 overall, what a ride this team went on. Coming into the season, the ‘Cats knew they were going to be excellent at Linebacker and the defensive line, and had potential to be solid on the offensive line but after that, the roster was in the air.  There was talk about our defensive backfield being a weak link, nobody knew who was going to be our main running back, not sure which of the receivers would step up, and everyone wanted to talk about who was going to be the quarterback.  These questions were understandable after a truckload of talent the ‘Cats lost after the 2016 season.

Let’s look at it. Linfield lost one of their greatest quarterbacks of all time, one of the most dynamic running backs in program history with our outstanding other RB’s, we lost our top EIGHT receivers (where most of them were multiple years starters), long time punter, and lost their entire starting defensive backfield (who were all starters since their Sophomore seasons). After the 2016 season, the Linfield Wildcats lost a CRAP load of talent. Coaches around the Northwest Conference had to be licking their chops that this was going to “the year” where they were finally able to knock off Linfield from the NWC throne. It was an understandable though as Linfield might have appeared vulnerable for the first time in nearly a decade. However, the 2017 Linfield Wildcats had other plans in mind. First, let’s talk about this defense.

What an amazing season for the Wildcat defense.  The ‘Cats knew that in order for this team to have a shot to get back to another conference title and the playoffs, the defense was going to have to play top-shelf defense for the entire season and Linfield did just that in only allowing 12.1 points per game and only allowed a team to break the 20 point mark twice (24 points twice by UMHB).  While everyone knew the linebackers and defensive line play would be strong, it was the secondary and their excellent play that made this a complete defense. With five new starters and multiple other players breaking the rotation in the secondary, they instantly put any worries to rest in a tremendous performance against Chapman and just didn’t stop playing outstanding coverage defense during the entirety of the 2017 season.  Duke Mackle turned in a huge 2017 season from his safety position along with Nate Sample. The ‘Cats had four of the best cover corners in the conference between Andrew Schwieterman, Cory Stowell, Anthony Guttadauro, and Marquis Perrilliat. And busting onto the scene from the Rover position was Wade Ransom who turned in a 1st team All-NWC season after fighting injuries for most of his Linfield career. Wade’s size and speed made him both an enforcer in the secondary, he could rush the QB, or come up with huge interceptions in the secondary. What a great combination of players for the Wildcat defense in 2017.

But the tip of the spear of this defense was their linebacker and defensive line. This was about as dominant of an overall defensive front that Linfield has rolled out in a long time. The front seven had such a great combination of speed, size, intelligence, and playmaking ability that they made it incredibly difficult for a team to get any sustained offense going. You had Linebacker Jason Farlow who should have been named NWC Defensive Player of the Year by himself as Farlow put himself on a level of Forrest, Causey, Olsen, Bertsch, in terms of All-Time great Linfield Linebackers. Flanking Farlow was Jake Reimer who has been so tremendous throughout his career at linebacker and Mitchel Kekle with his playmaking ability. The three of these guys caused so many issues for offenses over the past three years that NWC offensive coordinators had to pop a bottle of champagne when they played their last snap.

When you combine with those three was a defensive line that could both rush the quarterback and stuff the run.  It started in the middle with the play of defensive tackle Zach Grate. Grate’s ability to eat up space in the middle and crush offensive linemen made our linebacker’s job so much easier over the past three seasons. Rolling next to Grate was DT Jake Handran who was rightfully honored as a 2nd team all-nwc defender and also playing vital minutes at DT were Havili Eteaki, Chris Stinchcomb, and Dakota Church. On the outside what can you say about Marcus McGovern? Gov had a great senior season in racking up 7.5 sacks and seemed to constantly in the backfield harassing quarterbacks. Asa Schwartz also had a huge impact at the other defensive end as well as Tony Kraus, Sam Fults, and freshman Ray Thomas.

It was near comical in how stifling Linfield was during NWC play as Linfield only allowed 8.6 points per game.  The dominance was so complete that the 1st and 2nd team All-Northwest Conference team could only muster up a single rushing TD and single passing TD against Linfield on the season.

Here is the breakdown of 1st and 2nd team players against this defense:

QB’s:
Ian Koste (Whit): 32 of 63, 267 yards passing, 0 TD’s, 3 interceptions, 3 sacks, 2 lost fumbles
Grant Schroder (GFU): 8 of 23, 69 yards passing, 1 TD, 1 interception, 3 sacks, 2 lost fumbles

RB’s:
Brand Boyd (Pac): 24 rushes, 69 yards, 1 TD
Mason Elms (Whit): 7 rushes, 39 yards, 0 TD’s

WR’s:
Kevin Thomas (Whit): 4 receptions: 46 yards, 0 TD’s
Kobe Williams (Pac): 4 receptions: 29 yards, 0 TD’s
Garrett McKay (Whit): 7 receptions: 69 yards, 0 TD’s
Dustin Harrison (UPS): 2 receptions: 10 yards, 0 TD’s
Brad Lander (GFU): 1 reception, 3 yards, 0 TD’s
Nick Kiroukas (Whit): 3 receptions: 25 yards, 0 TD’s
Michael McKeown (Whit): 6 receptions, 79 yards, 0 TD’s

TE:
DJ Winters (PLU): 5 receptions, 89 yards, 0 TD’s

Not one single running back or receiver broke the 100-yard mark against the Wildcats in 2017 and had a 4-1 interception to TD throw ratio against what the NWC coaches deemed as the top two QB’s in the conference. That is some nasty defense right there.

And that defense was needed badly as the Wildcat offense took a long journey in 2017 before finding their footing and setting up what could be an excellent run for the upcoming seasons.
But let’s rewind back to the start of the season. As we covered above, Linfield’s offense went into the season with a lot of new faces but you could see some budding potential in the 27-12 victory over Chapman where Linfield rushed for over 200 total yards led by Freshman Dawson Ruhl’s and newcomers in QB Aiden Wilder and running back Chidubem Nnoli. Combining with those legs was the arm of QB Troy Fowler who threw for 159 yards and two touchdowns to JD Lasswell.  The Junior receiver would explode on the scene as a big play threat for the ‘Cats in the 2017 season as well as speedster Tyler Torgerson.

While it wasn’t a gangbuster season opener offensively, it gave the Wildcat faithful that the ‘Cats had something cooking on offense.  Unfortunately, that halted pretty quickly the next week when UMHB came to the ‘Catdome and put a lock on the ‘Cats defense in only allowing 3 points and a measly 141 total yards of offense.  Again, most of that is to the credit of the Crusaders and their brilliant defense who had and continued to steamroll over every offense they encountered. Thankfully, nobody in the ‘Catdome hit the panic button on the offense and that faith was rewarded with a solid offensive output against Whitworth (379 total yards) and then a season high-water mark for points against Willamette (55) that saw Chidubem Nnoli burst on the scene with 197 rushing yards and 3 TD’s.

At this point of the year, the offense seemed to be really growing with Fowler developing chemistry with Lasswell and Torgerson on the deep ball and the emergence of Nnoli on the ground. However, that is when the offense started to look different as the starting offensive line started accumulating some significant injuries and Linfield would lose quarterback Troy Fowler for a significant portion of the remainder of the season.

With the combination of the offensive line getting shuffled almost weekly and the balance of the offense suffering from not as dynamic of a passing attack, the overall output of the Linfield offense suffered as a result over the middle portion of the season in hard-fought victories over George Fox and the overtime thriller at Pacific Lutheran. However, with the improved health of the offensive line, the development of freshman receiver Kyle Kimball, who stepped up after a season-ending injury to Tyler Torgerson, and the insertion of freshman quarterback, Wyatt Smith, the offense started to develop a rhythm late in the year between the passing attack and Nnoli’s explosiveness at running back. This sudden growth peaked in the first round of the playoffs against Hardin-Simmons as the offense was brilliant for significant stretches in piling up 414 total offensive yards against one of the better defenses in the country. Linfield had found that balance in the rushing attack and being able to attack defenses on multiple levels in the passing game as the offensive line (Ryne Furhmark, Will Heck, Gabe Mojarro, Aaron Kokubun, and Dakota Smith) played brilliantly. While it took most of the season to get here, the Wildcat offense has set themselves up to be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming seasons.

I can’t do a season review without giving some tremendous praise to our kicking duo of freshman punter Colton Ramos and placekicker Willy Warne. Both of these guys were critical to the success of the 2017 Wildcats and it’s astounding for multiple reasons. First, Ramos being a freshman was unphased in the responsibility that was thrust on his shoulders in being a huge cog in the ‘Cats field position game. Ramos came up big so many times on the year in a huge field flip or pinning an offense deep. He was tremendous but I can’t say enough about how impressive Willy Warne was in 2017. To be honest, I thought Willy had the yips after the 2016 season and was done as the placekicker for Linfield football. He had such an up and down season and had a miserable playoff game against HSU that I wasn’t counting on him very much coming into 2017. I have to apologize to Willy for every doubting him as he was Mr. Clutch for the ‘Cats in 2017.  Warne kicked the 2nd most field goals in program history in a single season (16) and was perfect on PAT on the year (30 for 30). Willy had three FG’s of over 40 yards and came through with critical after critical kick.  It’s a tribute to Willy to break the chains of a rough season and kick at an All-American season and play such a vital role in the success of a Linfield football season.

Overall, what a tremendous and successful season put together by these Wildcats. This group had so much going against them at the start of the season and they faced huge amounts of adversity during the year as well, but they never flinched, and always embraced the task at hand. I am so proud of what this team accomplished and the fact they earned their way back into the NCAA playoffs with another conference title, smacked a top ten team in the mouth and had the chance to once against stand toe-to-toe against the best team in Division III. It was once again, a great year to be a Linfield Wildcat.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

2017 NCAA D3 Playoff Round 2: Linfield (9-1) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-0)

To be the man....

Here we are once again my friends. I felt like I’ve written this game preview about five times in the last 23 Linfield games. I feel that way because this is the 5th time Linfield and UMHB have played against each other in the last 23 Linfield games dating back to the 2015 playoff game. It’s crazy to have teams that are separated by more than 3,000 miles face square off with more frequency than programs that are within an hour drive of the McMinnville campus but that’s where the Wildcats are once again as they board a plane, that I’m sure the NCAA is hating to pay for, and head down to Belton, Texas to play the number one team, defending champ, and heavy favorite to repeat in 2017, the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor Crusaders.

The Wildcats lone defeat of the 2017 season came at the hands of the Cru in week 2 as UMHB choked out the Wildcat offense and made enough plays on offense and special teams to land a solid 24-3 win over Linfield. There has been a lot of talk about how different both of these teams are since week 2, and that is very true when talking about the Linfield and UMHB offense, but what hasn’t changed is what is special about both of these programs, the defenses.

The UMHB defense is special. It was special in 2016 and in my humble opinion, and I’m not just saying this because Linfield is playing them, the 2017 version is flat out better. The Crusaders are the number one scoring defense in the country in only allowing 8.0 points per game. The Purple Crush defense has only allowed 12 touchdowns and 2 fields goals through 11 games in 2017.  Rushing the football is incredible difficult against the Cru as UMHB only gives up 45.3 rushing yards per game (an average of 1.36 yards per carry).  A big reason for that rush total is the physical and athletic nature of the Mary Hardin-Baylor defensive line and linebackers. The defensive unit is number two in the nation in averaging 10.0 tackles for loss a game. I don’t need to go on and on about the stats the Cru puts up. If you watch them play you already know what makes them great. It’s a huge challenge for this Linfield staff to try to find something to hang your hat on in terms of attacking them offensively.

What’s changed this time around is that the Crusaders have been on a journey on offense in trying to find their guy to pull the trigger on offense. The Wildcats saw converted wide receiver TJ Josey behind center and Josey was effective against the ‘Cats in rushing for a 74-yard TD and going 12 of 17 throwing the ball for 130 yards and a touchdown.  However, it seemed that UMHB was looking for more punch out of the passing game and moved the dangerous Josey back to receiver (where he leads the team with 7 TD receptions) and when with Sophmore Kyle Jones who proved to have a live and accurate arm (82 of 126, 1,162 yards, 9 TDs, 4 picks) but doesn’t have the running threat that UMHB likes in their starting quarterbacks. So the Cru made the decision to insert freshman Carl Robinson III into the lineup and Robinson has been sensational in the role. Robinson was a two-star recruit and 83rd ranked duel-threat quarterback in the country coming right out of UMHB’s backyard (Killeen).  99.8% of Divison III schools in the country are not landing talents like Robinson III in their program.  Robinson makes quick and smart decisions and throws a nice ball. It doesn’t hurt that he can pull it down and punish a defense with his legs as well.

So we all know what our ‘Cats face this weekend. A suffocating defense, dangerous special teams, and an explosive defense. This is a great football team that our Wildcats are facing but all I’m going to say is that I like Linfield’s chances this week a hell of a lot better than just four weeks ago.


Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Find a way on offense: We already talk about how good this UMHB defense is.  They are phenomenal at every level and it all starts up front with that defensive line. The task for Linfield’s offense is large but something is happening with this Wildcat offense the past three weeks. The pieces are in place and the health of this group is as good as it’s been since the start of the year. With that said, points and opportunities are going to come at a premium for Linfield. The ‘Cats are going to have to be sound as a pound and when these chances present themselves to put points on the board, Linfield is going to have to grab them with both hands and not let go. 

Bottle up the Cru rushing game: This is easier typed than said but it will be critical for Linfield’s defense to try to bottle up an explosive rushing UMHB running game. Markeith Miller is the main man and one of the very best running backs in the country (886 rushing yards, 13 TDs, and a 5.4 YPR average) but Miller is far from the Cru’s only weapon as freshman quarterback Carl Robinson III and running back Byron Proctor offer up fantastic options for UMHB to lean on.  If Linfield is going to stay in this game the ‘Cats have to keep the Cru’ from revving up this aspect of their offensive game.

Eliminate the big play on Special Teams: Linfield has giving up two special teams touchdowns on the year and both of them to ASC schools, including a backbreaker against UMHB in week two. The Cru’ getting big returns on Linfield isn’t new as they’ve returned at least 3 touchdowns on special teams against the ‘Cats since the 2014 season. Of course, keeping points off the board will be a premium for Linfield so they need to be on the money in finding ways to minimize the Crusader kick/punt return game.

Make Plays on the Football:  In games where two excellent teams are facing each other, making plays on airborne footballs is not a stat that is kept but are some of the most critical moments of a football game.  The Wildcat receivers and defensive backs/linebackers have to be players on fire in these situations as the Crusaders have dudes on both sides of the ball that can change the tide of a game with their on-ball skills. Gotta compete.

Offensive line has to hold up: I’m not expecting this to be perfect at all. The defensive line for the Crusaders is so good so I’m expecting them to make plays but if Linfield is going to have a chance on Saturday, we’re going to need our offensive line and tight ends to play their best football of the year. We’ll need this group to try to make some space for Nnoli to navigate and allow Smith time to process and step into his throws.

Pressure: If the ‘Cats can limit the rush game, UMHB will have no problem in putting the ball in the air. The Wildcat defensive front needs to continue to be a force in making either quarterback Carl Robinson or Kyle Jones as uncomfortable as possible. The more the Wildcat defense can make these quarterbacks throw before they’re ready or put them in the turf, the more of the chance the ‘Cats can disrupt this explosive offense.

Keep mistakes down to a minimum:  Linfield is going to have to be great in this department. The ‘Cats are going to have to keep the penalties down low, make great decisions with the football, and protect the rock.  Both UMHB and Linfield are fantastic takeaway defenses and have offenses that don’t cough it up too often so the game could turn on what team could make an ill-advised throw or cough it up at the wrong time.

Overall

‘Cats by 1.  UMHB hasn’t lost a football game since the end of the 2015 season and there is a reason why. They are as complete of a football program that you’ll find with huge amounts of depth, skill, speed, size, and great coaching.  The degree of difficulty in going to Belton and knocking off UMHB is about as high as it gets on the Division III level.  With that said, this Linfield team has something going on. They have such a hard road to travel to get to this point of the year and has developed into a team with a standout defense and capable offense.  It’s going to take every guy on this roster to contribute but the ‘Cats have a shot to get it done. I’m looking forward to seeing Linfield take their shot and see if they can land a bullseye. Go ‘Cats!

Monday, November 20, 2017

‘Cats win!!! Linfield hogties Hardin-Simmons in 27-13 playoff victory in the ‘Catdome.

The Linfield defense swallowed up the Cowboys from start to finish in the 'Cats victory.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Photos here.
We all know the story of this Wildcat season up to this game. Linfield was a team that went a large portion of the season with struggles on offense in dealing with injuries, and lineup changes, but the ‘Cats leaned on their standout defense and the leg of Willy Warne. Linfield kept finding their way to win after win.  It wasn’t pretty and darn right close to having the season go off the rails a few times but this group kept believing and kept banging away.

Then, the offensive line starts to get healthy, Wyatt Smith was inserted into the lineup at quarterback, and a passing game starts to develop to help to provide the space that our standout running back Chidubem Nnoli needed to loosen up those packed defensive fronts. In the second half of the UPS game something started to click. It wasn’t perfect but it was the base to build on, and then another step forward in the Pacific game, and then…BAM! The talent on this roster finally meshed and performed to their ability this past Saturday in a slapping of one of the best teams in the country in Hardin-Simmons.

I’m not overselling HSU either. They had the offensive player of the year in running back JaQuan Hemphill, Special teams player of the year in Reese Childress (he’s good), 3 offensive lineman on the first team offense, 5 defenders with all-ASC honors, all the yards and points the Cowboys put up and a defense that only gives up 12 points a game.  This was an excellent opponent and Linfield chewed them up and spit them out.

Defensively, the ‘Cats did what they’ve done all year but doing it to a team with the pedigree of HSU was impressive. Making it even more impressive is that Linfield did it without starting corners Cory Stowell and Andrew Schweiterman (both injuries) and then lost All-American lock, and should be in heavy contention for West Region Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Jason Farlow early in the first quarter. Losing one of those guys is a blow but losing all three made you wonder how it would play out. The defensive staff didn’t flinch in putting their faith in corners Marquis Perriliat and Anthony Guttadauro and inserting Linebacker Patrick Pipitone in for the lost Farlow.  Perriliat was the first to make an impact with that tone setting interception from the 3rd play of the game. After that, it was a Guantanamo Bay style lockdown by the Wildcat defense.  I can throw out all the stats out at you but it wouldn’t do the justice in how the Wildcat defensive systematically took Hardin-Simmons apart on offense.
Speaking of offense, Linfield’s offense had an excellent day in the office in executing their game plan. Linfield only went three and out once on the day and used a balanced attack of run and pass to keep the chains moving and Hardin-Simmons off balance. What I loved the most was the play of the ‘Cats offensive line which hasn’t been on the receiving end of much love this year. This group is finally healthy and have been jelling over the past three weeks and they owned the Cowboys upfront. The O-Line was setting the corner for Nnoli and giving Smith the time he need to make great decision after great decision. The ‘Cats ability to sustain drives, eat up clock, and put points up on the board were a killer when match with the Wildcat defense.
What we all saw on Saturday was the culmination of a group of players that kept the faith that if they stuck to the coaching staff’s overall vision of what this team could be, this Linfield team could be as dangerous as anyone in the country.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

Defensive Domination: That was a Texas sized butt whipping by the Wildcat defense.  In my preview, I wrote nearly 800 words alone on how great this Hardin-Simmons offense is and the Linfield defense printed up my preview and wiped their noses with it.  HSU was the 4th best offense in the country coming into this game and Linfield made them look like George Fox’s offense. The ‘Cats deleted the Cowboys rushing attack and took away the ASC offensive player of the year in running back in Jaquan Hemphill (12 carries for 30 yards) and nearly match quarterback Landy Turner’s season interception total (5) in a single game with 3 picks. This was a talented offensive unit and the Wildcat defense had them at under 100 yards headed into the 4th quarter. People around division 3 knows this Wildcat defense is legit but I think Saturday opened up some eyes.

Balanced offensive attack: Tremendous offensive production against an outstanding defense as Linfield totaled 414 yards on 70 plays for an average of 5.9 yards.  The ‘Cats split up that total yardage with going for 188 on the ground and 226 yards passing. Linfield went heavier on the rushing attempts as the staff saw something there and used an incredibly efficient passing attack to keep the defense loose and kept the chains moving or in popping a big gainer.  I thought the offensive game plan was excellent and that balance kept HSU guessing on the day as Linfield dominated the football with a 36 minute to 23 minute advantage in time of possession.

Offensive Line had a day:  Linfield’s offensive line played a hell of a game on Saturday. This group has been so beaten up and had to reshuffle the deck during this 2017 season and it showed for a long period of time.  The original starting five of the 2017 season finally all were able to get back on the field against Puget Sound and since then they’ve started to jell and continue to get healthy. Their performance on Saturday was going to be a huge factor in the outcome of the game and these guys answered the bell. The Linfield offensive line and tight ends dominated up front in both the run and pass game. You give Nnoli the edge and Smith time to sit and process and you’re going to get good results. The Wildcat offensive line gave the team both of those against HSU and was critical to the victory.

Chidubem Nnoli carrying the load: What can you say about Chidubem Nnoli?  Nnoli just cracked the top ten of Linfield’s career single-season rushing leaders with a now 1,045 rushing yards in 2017.  The sophomore added 153 of those rushing yards to the total this past Saturday against the Cowboys off of 33 carriers. With the push the offensive line was getting up front and Nnoli’s blend of vision, balance, power, and speed it was a beautiful thing to watch. The coaching staff has a lot of trust in Chidubem and Nnoli keeps rewarding that trust with one great performance after the next.
Pass Rush Pressure: Hardin-Simmons offensive line is an outstanding pass pro football team. Their guys are big, physical, athletic, and well coached. They presented a big challenge for the ‘Cats defense front and Linfield rose to the challenge. While Linfield did technically only combine for 2 sacks on the day, they were constantly moving HSU QB Landry Turner off his mark and making the quarterback incredibly uncomfortable in the pocket.  Senior Defensive End Marcus McGovern stood out and seemed to be perpetually chasing Turner in the backfield as McGovern continues his standout Senior season.

Efficient Passing Attack:  Wyatt Smith and the Linfield receivers were freaking great on Saturday.  Smith passed for 226 yards and a TD on 17 of 24 passing and completed passes to six different receivers.  JD Lasswell continued his trend in making explosive plays for Linfield. Both Drew Accimus and Keegan Weiss had big plays and the staff continues to be creative in using their running backs in the passing attack. I loved that Smith changes speeds on the ball for what’s appropriate. If he needs to zip it in he can snap the ball, but it the pass calls for some touch to find the window, Wyatt has a knack to glide it in. On top of that, Smith made great decisions with the ball all game long.

Winning the Turnover Battle: In the game preview, we discussed how Linfield came into the game as a +11 on the year and Hardin-Simmons has a -1. Those numbers are now updated to Linfield being a +14 and HSU finishing the year as a -4. Trends at this point of the season can tell you just who you are and Linfield’s ability to take the ball away from opposition burned HSU to the tune of 4 turnovers to 1. All four takeaways for Linfield were huge as the first by Marquis Perrilliat set the tone for the day, a forced fumble snuffed out one 4th quarter drive and a Wade Ransom pick ended the game and stopped Hardin-Simmons last gasp.  However, the Duke Mackle pick six was the backbreaker and a thing of beauty. (Sidenote: How in the blue blazes was Duke only a 2nd team all-NWC safety? Straight garbage on that decision.)
3rd Down Defense: We’ve already covered how masterful the Wildcat defense was on Saturday and Linfield’s performance on 3rd down was critical in the flow of this game. The ‘Cats held Hardin-Simmons to only 4 of 13 on 3rd down on the day with two of those conversions with the game in hand in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys’ offense had few answers for Linfield and that played out during this critical down time and again.

The Bad

Special Teams:  Our special teams unit did not have a day to remember against Hardin-Simmons as the ‘Cats kickoff team as an adventure (again), we had a bad turnover on a punt return where one of our guys had the ball hit them while they were blocking a Cowboy gunner, muffed an onside recovery that kept HSU alive a little longer, and then the punt return for touchdown in the 4th quarter. A lot of food for thought for the staff as Linfield will face an even greater special teams challenge next week at UMHB.

Penalties: A LOT different this week than against Pacific as Linfield were able to get rid of the garbage penalties (i.e. bad personal fouls) but Linfield still piled up 10 flags for 70 yards on the day in what seemed like a number of minor infractions that caused the ‘Cats to stub their toes. Some of this is the byproduct of the aggressive nature of this program, so I can be live with walking the edge, just not the dumb look at me/fake tough guy stuff. Good to see Linfield clean that up this week.

The Ugly

Hardin-Simmons signal blocking towel:  It was back! Last year the ‘Cats defense was savaging the Cowboys high flying offense (sound familiar) and the only answer the Cowboys coaching staff had was to create a towel wall because Linfield staff’s *had* to be picking their signals. I mean, there is no other reason why Linfield was absolutely stuffing their offense. Right? Well, instead of two wimpy sized purple towels, the HSU staff went with one large white one.  The Cowboys offensive staff should have put that towel to better use and tossed it in at the officials halfway through that first half when it because obvious that Linfield’s defense was too much for the Cowboys to handle. In fact, when I saw them break out that big towel it showed that Linfield was in Cowboys staff’s heads before the game even started.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

2017 NCAA Division 3 Round One Preview: Linfield (8-1) vs Hardin-Simmons (9-1)


It’s the most wonderful time of the year to be a Division III football fan, and for 14 out of the last 18 seasons, a Linfield Wildcat fan as well, as the playoffs are once again here and YOUR Linfield Wildcats are back in the hunt.  Selection Sunday was pretty nerve-racking as you can never know what the NCAA committee will decide but the penny pinchers once again decided to put the NWC/ASC/SCIAC sub-bracket together with sending the SCIAC champ to UMHB and then pairing Linfield with Hardin-Simmons. The only difference this year is that Linfield gets the honors of hosting the Cowboys in the ‘Catdome instead of hitting the road. To be honest, as hard as it is to see Linfield in a top 10 showdown in the first round, while other top ten teams are playing schools named after the word you say when you strike gold, but I’m thrilled that the ‘Cats will get one more chance to suit up and defend the ‘Catdome.

And Linfield will be defending the home turf against one of the best teams in the country in the 5th ranked Hardin-Simmons Cowboys. Linfield fans are familiar with the ‘Boys at this point in seeing HSU six times over the past 11 seasons. The most recent was Linfield’s 24-10 first-round playoff victory in Abilene last season and I’m sure that isn’t lost on the Cowboys and an extra incentive for HSU going into this weekend.  HSU is once again 9-1 at this point in the season with their lone blemish being a tight loss against their hated rivals and ASC foes, the UMHB Crusaders. The HSU team Linfield is facing this weekend is just what you would expect to see out of a top 5 team out of the ASC.  The Cowboys put up pinball-like numbers on offense, play a physical and tough brand of defense, and have guys all over the field that can make big plays to change the course of the game.

Yes, the offense is legit. Hardin-Simmons is currently the 4th best offense in the country in terms of yards per game (522.6), and 9th in the country in scoring (45.1 points per game). The Cowboys work almost exclusively out of the shotgun and throw a ton of formation at you in what is a balanced attack that can pound you between the tackles, work you over on the screen game, move the chains, or hit you for the big play.

Leading the charge on offense for Hardin-Simmons is the talented 1-2 punch of quarterback Landry Turner (which is the perfect name of a quarterback of Texas area football team) and running back Jaquan Hemphill.  Turner is the straw that stirs the drink for the Cowboys’ offense as the redshirt freshman has put up outstanding numbers in what was a shortened season for the QB. Turner has passed for 1,596 yards on a completion rate of 70.9%.  You can also add 20 touchdowns against only 5 picks against his name for an average of 266 passing yards per game.  The QB is a talent but making his success that much easier are the targets and Turner has a couple of gems.

Receivers Reese Childress and Devonte’ Walker have been the go-to guys in the passing attack and it’s easy to see why. Both are lanky targets at 6’1”, have excellent speed, and each possesses great on-ball skills as well.  Childress and Walker both have about the same amount of catches per game with 4.4 and 4.3 each and both have about the same amount of yardage per game as well with Childress catching for 62.2 YPG and Walker with 69.7 YPG. Combined they have 13 TD receptions and will be a big-time challenge for the Wildcat secondary.

As daunting as the passing game looks, what makes this offense even scarier is the rushing attack of the Cowboys.  HSU has the 15th best rushing attack in Divison III with 256.9 yards per game.  Junior Jaquan Hemphill is the guy for the Cowboys in the run game and Hemphill has delivered the mail to the tune of 111.0 yards per game, 14 rushing touchdowns, and running at a 7.4 yards per carry clip in 2017. Hemphill is a patient runner that will set up his blocking but then has the ability to open up the motor and break off large chunks at a time.

As much as I’ve talked up the Hardin-Simmons offense, the Cowboys defense has been outstanding in 2017. The HSU defense only allows 12.6 points per game in their 4-2-5 scheme and have piled up the damage in the backfield.  HSU is 26th in the country in team tackles for loss defense (average 8.2 TFL’s per game) and are also 22nd in the nation in sacks per game with 32 total QB putdowns for an average of 3.2 per game.

Leading the defense is a trio of veteran linebackers in Josh White (89.0 total tackles, 6 TFLs, and 7 pass breakups), Matthews Hawkins (72.0 total tackles, 9 TFLs), and Chris Miller (50.0 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 TFLs, and a pick). Defensive end, Jim LaFond, has been a nightmare in the backfield for the opposition in racking up 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.  What you noticed about this defense is they spread it around and it’s just not one guy doing all the damage. The Cowboys defense is very similar to Linfield’s in that they are disciplined and play outstanding team defense.  You have 16 different guys with a sack and 23 different guys with a tackle of loss. The Linfield offense is going to have a tall task in front of them as this is a diverse and athletic defensive group.

For Linfield, it’s all hands on deck.  Hardin-Simmons is about as good as they get in Division III so the margin of error is going to be slim for our Wildcats. Linfield is going to have to be outstanding on defense, rock solid on special teams, and be opportunistic on offense to have a shot at taking down a standout Cowboy football team. Let’s get to the keys!

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Have to limit the HSU rushing game: Yeah, it sounds stupid to say that Linfield needs to make Hardin-Simmons into a passing team when they have one of the most efficient and explosive passing attacks in the country but that’s what I’m saying.  If Linfield allows the Cowboys to be balanced and attack the ‘Cats on both the ground and through the air then it’s going to be a long football game for the Wildcats. If Linfield can somehow keep the ground yardage in check it could go to throttle down this high flying offense.

Keep the negative offensive plays to a minimum:  In watching this Wildcat offense for a good part of the season it seemed that Linfield’s scariest down was 1st down as Linfield had a tendency to go the opposite direction on first down and set up the defense with hard 2nd and 3rd and long situations. The Wildcat offense has to keep the HSU defensive line and linebackers out of their backfield and keep the offense moving forward to give the ‘Cats the best chance possible to move the chains on 3rd down.

Need to have a bid day on Special Teams: Linfield has to do it in all phase of special teams to keep this one within winning distance. Our coverage teams have to be ON THE MONEY this weekend and not allow big returns and short fields, our kickers need to do what they’ve done all year and be nails. Our big fellas up front have to hold the line of scrimmage and our block team has to continue to be rolling around in the head of every placekicker that runs out on the field. This unit needs to have a big day.

Protect the ball and win the turnover battle:  This is an area where so many playoff football games have been won or lost.  Going into Saturday, the ‘Cats are a +11 in the turnover ratio game and that’s solid. The Cowboys are sitting at a -1 in 2017, and while not bad, this is an area the ‘Cats have to come out ahead. We need our offensive players to make rock solid decisions with the ball and our defense have to take those calculated risks to pop a ball out at the right time.

Pressure: The Wildcats are going to need to get after Turner in the pocket. Turner does an outstanding job in standing tall in the pocket or buying himself time in moving around and avoiding pressure.  Linfield’s defensive line and linebackers have to make Turner feel the bodies around him and try to shake what appears to be a cool customer behind center.  While taking the running game has huge importance, being able to put Turner in the turf is of equal value on Saturday.

Take full advantage of any and every scoring opportunity: This is an excellent Cowboy defense the ‘Cats will be facing so Linfield is going to make hay when the opportunities present themselves. It will be critical for Linfield to convert any chance to score into the points.  I don’t know how many chances our offensive will get to punch one in on the Cowboys so Linfield better make the most of any shot.

Making plays on the football: The winner and loser of a college playoff football game against two good opponents can often be who makes more plays once the football is in the air. Any Wildcat fan has seen it from both sides. The team that can get up and make the great offensive or defensive play often times carries the day to victory.  HSU has lots of guys that can make plays on the football but so does our ‘Cats.

Overall

‘Cats by 3. I think I’ve talked up Hardin-Simmons up pretty good.  They deserve that praise but this Linfield football team is worthy.  This Linfield team has the heart and skill to beat any team in the Division III landscape. Will it be easy this Saturday afternoon in the ‘Catdome? Hell, no. But I know Linfield will be prepared and if the ‘Cats can execute for a full 60 minutes there isn’t a reason the ‘Cats cannot win and advance. Go ‘Cats!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

2017 Linfield College Football: Pacific Mini-Highlight

‘Cats Win!!! Linfield knock out Boxers in 35-7 victory in Forest Grove.

Winners!!!

That was satisfying. After weeks of enjoying but gaining a few new gray hairs the Wildcats started to put the whole dang thing together in what was a dominating 35-7 victory over the Pacific Boxers.

I didn’t want to bring this up in the game preview but since Pacific rebooted their program, Linfield hasn’t exactly burned it up on the road against the Boxers.  If you do look at just the final outcomes, it looks like the 2011 and 2016 games were comfortable wins but they were not crisp games as the ‘Cats had some struggles to put Pacific away quickly in those contests and we all know that Linfield had to fight off the Boxers in 2013 in a tight battle.  However, this past Saturday was a slap-down from the opening kickoff to the end of the game. It was a vintage Linfield football game where the ‘Cats use a quick strike offense to surge ahead and the defense bludgeons the opposition into submission.

It was fun to watch the confidence of the team grow after having it shaken, but not broken, in weeks prior. As I wrote about last week, you could see the offensive unit take a step forward last week in the second half against Puget Sound and the ‘Cats carried that momentum over into this past Saturday as they moved the ball quickly and effectively against Pacific.   Pass pro was mostly solid on the day, receivers were mixing it up in the run game with their blocking, Nnoli was making guys miss or bowling them over into the end zone, and our receivers were making plays on the football.  It does make me wish the offense had one more game to continue that upward swing before the playoffs but I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. The sudden productivity of the offensive unit is a welcome and exciting development to counter what is an outstanding Linfield defense.

Speaking of the defense, what can you say about this group? They have been so freaking good from the opening game down in California, to standing toe-to-toe with UMHB, and then to locking up the Northwest Conference offenses and throwing away the key. In seven conference games this Linfield defense only allowed 8.6 points per game, 66 yards of rushing per game, 151.6 yards passing allowed per game, 12 picks, 11 fumble recoveries, 26 sacks, and only allowed 1 rushing TD. This Linfield defense out prepared, out skilled, out quicked, and out toughed everyone in the Pacific Northwest in 2017 and Pacific was just the latest victim.

The Boxers were only able to put together 147 total yards of offense, which is better that Puget Sound last week so at least they had going on for them.  Really, it wasn’t a case of the Boxers being bad on offense but what Linfield’s defense did to them was what the ‘Cats have done to NWC offenses all season long and that’s bury ‘em.


With that said, everyone got the news of the playoffs and what the road for the ‘Cats will look like.  If you’re surprised that the ‘Cats are playing Hardin-Simmons again then I want to talk to you about a real estate opportunity I have in Parkland. This is not shocking and I’m actually thrilled to be hosting a home playoff game in 2017.  The Cowboys are a GREAT football program and will give Linfield all the ‘Cats can handle and more.  We’ll have plenty to talk about on Thursday but for now let’s get to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly from an excellent win over the Boxers.

The Good

A balanced offense: Linfield’s offense looked good. Really good. If it was for the two red zone turnovers in the first half, the ‘Cats offense might have been able to punch in 5 touchdowns in the first 6 possessions but ultimately has to settled on those 3 first half TD strikes.  The Offense found that balance they’ve been craving all year long with 151 yards rushing and 219 passing yards that equaled out to Linfield hitting a 6.3 yards per play average.  The offensive line seems healthier and guys are feeling more comfortable and growing into their roles on that side of the football. The growth couldn’t have come at a better time.


Generating Pressure: Linfield defensive line’s play was game altering as they never allowed the Boxers to get comfortable in the passing department.  Linfield stacked up 5 sacks and the constant pressure was heavy on the Pacific coaching staff’s mind.  The Pacific offense was so worried about Linfield’s heat that their passing game was a collection of check downs and screens for the big majority of the game and a huge reason why Pacific only went 11 of 28 for 71 yards throwing the ball.

Creating turnovers: The Linfield defense forced 4 turnover against the Boxers on Saturday, including 3 forced fumbles and recoveries.  Anthony Guttadauro came up with a big pick late in the first half to halt Pacific’s only offensive action in the half after a big punt return by the Boxers.  Then all three of these fumble recoveries were critical as Linfield turned each of them into touchdowns and allowed Linfield to put the game to bed early in the 3rd quarter. 

Development of the passing game:  Linfield quarterback Wyatt Smith continued to impress in his second start of his young career in going 10 of 14 for 188 yards and 3 TD strikes.  To me, his best and most eye opening throw wasn’t the touchdown throws but was a strike on 1st and 10 in the 3rd quarter from Pacific’s 22.  It was a play action pass where Smith dropped a dime over bracketed coverage to Kyle Kimball to set up a first and goal on the one. It was a big time throw and further proof that the passing game is going the right direction.

3rd down defense: The Wildcat defense was suffocating on the day in only allowing Pacific to go 2 of 15 on 3rd down conversions (13%).  The Wildcats forced six 3 and out possessions during the game and gave the Pacific punter a sore leg for making him kick it so much on Saturday. 

The Bad

The Penalties, man:  As much as I love this team and how hard they have grinded there is a part of this team that need to grow up and lean to walk away from those guys on the other team that have nothing else going on than to try to act tough and bait an altercation. Linfield had five personal fouls/unsportsmanlike penalties. FIVE. That just not what we do in this program. Walk away and let your play do all the talking. This team will be better off if/when we leave that garbage behind us.
Red Zone Turnovers: I don’t know I the pick on the first possession was a red zone turnover (looks like it wasn’t in the stat sheet) but it was close enough so I’m going to count it.  With that said, I’m not going to be too upset on that DB jumping that route and making that pick. It was a great read by that player.  As for the Nnoli fumble, well, Chidubem has been a warrior carrying the football this season, and in fact, that might have been his first fumble on the season (stat nerds correct me if I’m wrong).  So, I’m not going to get bent out of shape on these two turnovers but this game could have even been put out reach even earlier if we don’t give the ball back in those situations.

Letting Pacific score a rushing touchdown: I think the defense breathed new life in the Pacific touchdown drive with about 45 penalties. Not to take away too much from the Boxers on that drive as they converted a few times to keep that one alive but goodness the ‘Cats assisted on that one. I’m not even that upset that Pacific scored but the selfish reason why I hated to see a rushing TD is that was the FIRST RUSHING TD that the Wildcat defense allowed in NWC play this season. The ‘Cats defense came *this close* to not allowing a rushing TD against anyone in the NWC. There is no stat on that in the archives but I have to imagine that would have been a rare feat if the Wildcat defense would have accomplished that.

The Ugly

Nothing: What can be ugly about this football team wrapping up another undefeated NWC season, going 8-1 overall, being regarded as a top 10 team, and going back to the playoff? Well, nothing can. We’ll talk about this later but I’m so dang proud of this program for what they’ve accomplished so far in 2017 after all the departures off of last year’s team.  It wasn’t pretty for good chunks of the year but it has been a group of hard-nosed players that expect to win each Saturday they hit the field and I’m excited to see how far our ‘Cats can take it in the second season. Go ‘Cats!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

2017 Game 9 Preview: Linfield (7-1) at Pacific (4-3)

Wait, it's the end of the regular season already?
And off we go! Your Linfield Wildcats will wrap up the 2017 regular season a stone’s throw away from the ‘Catdome as Linfield will travel up to Forest Grove to face the Pacific Boxers. This should be a good football game between two programs that pride themselves on playing a physical brand of football.

The Pacific Boxers have had a bit of a strange 2017 season as the Boxers non-conference season was rocked with Pacific finding out the day they were supposed to board an airplane to Southern California that their September 16th game against the Occidental Tigers was called off by the hosts due to low roster numbers.  It was a bad situation for everyone involved as the players were robbed of over 10% of their season and a number of Pacific families were left hanging with airplane tickets and time off work with no game to go see. That has left the Boxers with an 8 game season which the Northwest Conference hasn’t seen since 2005, when Lewis & Clark canceled the remainder of their season due to low roster numbers right before the start of NWC play.

With that said, the 2017 Boxers play a competitive brand of football in which has seen Pacific lose three tight games on the year.  The Pacific victories have been tight as well until the Boxers were able to able to land a 28-point win over Willamette last weekend.  Regardless, Pacific is more than comfortable in getting in a phone booth with a team and slugging it out until a victor can be declared.

On offense, the Wildcat defense is going to see a team featuring the top rushing attack in the NWC in Pacific, as the Boxers average 211.3 rushing yards per game (4.9 yards per rush), and the top rusher in the conference in Senior Running Back Brandon Boyd.  Boyd has been the workhorse for the Boxers in averaging 138.6 rushing yards per game (6.7 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns on the season.

As much as the Boxers want to ground and pound the opposition, Pacific is capable of putting the ball in the air.  Leading the Pacific aerial attack is Junior quarterback JT Greenough.  The Tigard native is completing passes at a 59.1% rate and averaging 179.6 passing yards per game. Easily, the top target for the Boxers is the explosive Kobe Williams. The sophomore receiver has top-end speed and is not only a dynamic deep threat but is dangerous in Pacific's wide receiver screen game.

The Boxers will attack Linfield with throwing a ton of different formations at the Wildcat defense and have no issues in going four wide or bringing in extra offensive linemen and try to ram it down your throat.  It will not only be a physical challenge for this Linfield defense but also a schematic one as well.

Defensively, the Boxers are another 3-4 base defensive team that the ‘Cats will be facing.  The Boxers have been solid all year on defense in only allowing 23.0 points per game.  Pacific hasn’t been a one-man show on defense as the Boxers top three tacklers all represent all three levels of the Pacific Defense. The top tackler on the team is senior linebacker Ina Teofilo who has piled up 35 total tackles on the year, followed by sophomore safety Kolby Kikolaisen with 34 total tackles, and that’s followed by defensive line stand out, Xavier Harvey, who has stacked up 32 tackles on the year.  Harvey is also leading the team in tackles for loss (5.5) and sacks (4.5).

While the Boxers are allowing 180.7 rushing yard per game, where this defense has been outstanding on 3rd down.  Currently Pacific features the 7th best 3rd down defense in the entire country (Linfield is 23rd) in only allowing a 3rd down conversion rate of 25% on the season (Linfield’s outstanding defense gives up 3rd downs on 28% of the time). It’s a pretty interesting stat as the Boxer defense, while solid, doesn’t jump out in any other statistical category in the Division III rankings.  However, that is a pretty darn good area to be good at and one to give Linfield fans concern as the ‘Cats haven’t exactly been gangbusters on 3rd down with only having a 36.7% conversion rate. For fans watching this weekend, 3rd down will play a major role in the outcome of this game.

For the ‘Cats, this is another big weekend as while Linfield did clinch the NWC title last weekend there is still too much work for this Linfield team to do before even considering the second season. Linfield HAS to be fully invested at the task on hand because this Wildcat team isn’t even close to being a team that can roll out and be conservative in how they approach and attack a game like this and expect a positive outcome. Really, this Linfield team has to look at this game as a playoff game and keep building on the momentum of the season as the ‘Cats have played a superior brand of defensive football and saw a spark of a dynamic offensive attack that could develop for this program.

To me, the talent on this roster hasn’t played their best football yet. There have been so many injuries and line up shuffling on the offensive side of the ball that has stifled the development of this unit but people watching last weekend saw something happening in that second half.  Was that just a flash in the pan or was that second half against UPS the foundation of an explosive offensive attack? We’re going to find out in less than 48 hours against a team that would love nothing to do than derail the end of Linfield’s regular season.

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Focus on Saturday: That’s all that matters and Linfield have to realize that the Boxers are going to go down in this season swinging with everything they got.  The Boxers have nothing to lose and everything to gain in beating Linfield and riding into the recruiting season with a big old feather in their cap.  The last thing this program needs to do is worry about who or where the ‘Cats are going to be in the first round.  No, this Linfield football team and staff need to have all eyes on Saturday and let it all hang out in order to keep this football team moving in a upward trajectory.

Take away the Boxer Rushing Game:  Yeah, we’ve already talked about how good the Boxers rushing attack is this year. Boyd is a fantastic back that does a great job in setting up his blocking and making quick and decisive cuts on the line of scrimmage and has the breakaway speed to bust one wide open.  This is the best running back that Linfield has seen since week 2 of the season against Mary Hardin-Baylor. I’m not overselling it, Boyd is good and if Linfield can take him away it will go a long way towards a Linfield victory.

Limit negative offensive plays: Negative offense plays (Tackles for loss, penalties, sacks) have been a killer for this 2017 Linfield Wildcat team. Linfield’s offensive line has to be outstanding with their communication and execution of blocking schemes and then has to win the one-on-one battles in front of them.  Keeping negative plays down to a minimum would be a huge positive for this offensive unit.

Win the turnover battle: Linfield is coming into this game as a team with a +7 turnover ratio (that means the opposition has turned it over 7 more times than Linfield has during the season) while the Boxers are a -5.  Pacific hasn’t been terrible in giving the ball away but their defense has only caused 7 total turnovers on the season.  Keeping this trend going could play a major factor in a Linfield victory.

Find an offensive balance: For most the season, Linfield has been a rush first football team but last week the ‘Cats were finally able to break loose in the passing attack for over 300 yards but had zero rush game to speak of. Pacific traditionally, and still does, a good job in their defensive passing schemes so the ‘Cats offense needs to find that balance. I’m telling you, that if Linfield can find a balanced offensive attack, this can be an explosive offensive football team.

Out special Pacific on Special Teams: We’ve needed this unit all season long and this weekend is no different. The ‘Cats have to be able to flip fields and be great in their coverage teams against the Boxers.  Every game it seems like this group comes through with some standout plays and Linfield will need more of the same in order to move on with the victory.

Put the pressure on: We’ve talked a ton about the Boxer rushing attack but Pacific is capable of throwing the football.  In passing situations, the Linfield front four has to get after JT Greenough, who is not a mobile quarterback.  If Linfield allows Greenough to stand up tall and deliver, he’s going to make Linfield pay.  The ‘Cats have to get guys on him in a hurry and move him off his spot in the pocket in order to disrupt the Boxers passing attack.

Overall

‘Cats by 10.  I’m coming into Saturday with full respect to Pacific.  Hanson stadium is not an easy place to win football games and Pacific is a prideful program with plenty of talent.  Our ‘Cats need to be razor sharp coming into Saturday and if they can perform up to the talent on this roster there isn’t a reason why Linfield can’t walk away from Saturday with a hard-earned and satisfying victory against a worthy opponent.