It's a fantasy question that comes up with any fan of their particular team: "Could this year's team beat that year's team?" It's a fun question and you have all seen ESPN run specails facing off past years Super Bowl winners off against each other. Could the 80's 49ers take out the 70's Steelers (Answer: Yes) and for fans of YOUR Linfield Wildcats that question has come up over the past few seasons about the great Linfield teams of the past decade. Obviously the 2004 Linfield National Championship team stands alone but there are a number of squads that were "this close" to breaking though the Salem, Va. to play for it all.
Asking WC11 to chose between these teams is a Sophie's Choice moment and honestly I couldn't say who would win between 2002, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010. They were each great teams in their own regards and honestly I don't want to put up with the grief from various 'Cat players asking me how come I'm dogging out this or that year's team.
HOWEVER, one former Linfield Wildcat dropped me a line out of the blue with probably the most detailed breakdown you'll ever read that pits the 2005 Linfield Wildcat team vs the 2009 'Cats. 1993 Linfield Graduate and 3 time football letter-winner Chris Ellis penned the epic below that examines position group by position group, intangibles of each team, signatures wins, and comes up with his conclusion on who would win a showdown at the 'Catdome between two great Linfield squads. Just a fun and great ready by Chris and I can't thank him enough for sending this in to WC11 so I could share this with the rest of you.
So how do you have in this game?-----------------------------
The 2005 Linfield Wildcats lost a heartbreaker to the University of Wisconsin Whitewater in the national quarterfinals. The game featured an explosion of offense for both times, countless lead changes, and the feeling that neither team really lost the game. The 2009 Linfield Wildcats took a lead into the fourth quarter against the University of Wisconsin Whitewater in the national semifinals, but again fell just short. Both UWW teams went on to play in the national title game, with the 2009 team winning it all.
The two teams took different paths to get there, but the bottom line is that both were among Linfield’s finest teams. Sure, the same arguments could be made for the 2000 squad and (depending on how far back we go) the 1992 team, but given their similar ultimate fates (losing to the UWW machine late in the playoffs) and their relative closeness chronologically, their distinct offensive styles, and the turned-over roster, it’s hard not to wonder ‘what if’ the 2005 Wildcats played the 2009 Wildcats.
Clearly, this game would have to be played in the CatDome. This would have to be a December game, when both teams have a season’s worth of experience, mojo, momentum, and playoff desperation built up. Neither team would be allowed to wear all purple.
So without further fanfare, let’s break this thing down, unit-by-unit…
Defensive tackles: Greenberg/Ketler vs. Nishizaki/Steele
-Greenberg and Ketler had started together on the 2004 championship team and were coming off all-conference seasons. Steele was a freshman and Nishizaki was a returning starter. Greenberg and Ketler were a much more important to the 2005 team’s pass rush than Nishizaki and Steele were to the 2009 team’s pass rush. They had more tackles for loss than Nishizaki and Steele did. Teams almost always tried to keep Linfield’s high-scoring passing attack on the sidelines by running the ball and bleeding the clock. It didn’t work. Greenberg and Ketler are two major reasons why. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Defensive ends: Tom/Soo vs. Estrada/Hedin
-Tom was a returning starter, and Soo got a lot of starts in 2004 due to Kelly Bertrand’s injury. While Estrada had begun 2008 as a starter, he had not been able to finish the season. Hedin was a completely different player at the end of 2009 than he was in the beginning, but the talent was there, and as the season neared its end he became a TFL machine. While Soo and Tom were solid performers, they couldn’t match the raw statistics and penchant for game-changing plays that 2009 ends brought. ADVANTAGE, 2009
Linebackers: Olson/Caffal/Rodgers/Rombach vs. Jackson/Tkachuk/Partlow
-Probably the toughest position to call. Both staffs were absolutely loaded with talent, smarts and experience. Both units had depth throughout. Olson was the best of the bunch individually, but Jackson could line up anywhere, and had a knack for negative plays that got his team fired up and sucked the life out of the opposition. Tkachuk was never out of position and was as reliable as night following day. Both sets had depth and versatility. Either could defend the run or pass with equal aplomb. ADVANTAGE: EVEN
Corners: Boock/Armstrong/Hazenberg vs. Dixon/Comfort/Skore
-To truly understand how amazing a football player Brandon Hazenberg was, consider that he tied for the 2005 team lead in interceptions despite starting only three games at corner AND starting every game at wide receiver. Dixon, Comfort, and Skore had good years by any measure, but their best years were still ahead of them. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Safety: Mehl vs. Fisher
-No offense to Brian Mehl, but in Drew Fisher we’re talking about the best Linfield Safety since Ray Lions and one of the best handful ever. ADVANTAGE, 2009
Rover: Foreman vs Krieger
-No need to look past the stats here. Krieger had more tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and interceptions. Foreman forced and recovered more fumbles. ADVANTAGE, 2009
Monster: Ort vs. Parish
-You know those hits where the entire crowd lets out an “Ooooh…” and feels a little bit uncomfortable for a few plays afterward? Parish delivered a handful of those. Ort delivered one or two of those just about every game. And he had that First Team All America thing going for him, too. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Center: Donaldson vs. Otineru
-Two capable, veteran anchors of two very good offensive lines. Two different offensive styles. The nod goes to the two-time academic All-American. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Guards: Holan/Holtgraves vs. Millenbach/Barnes
-Linfield’s 2005 offensive line doesn’t get the props it should because the team lived and died by the pass. When we think of offensive linemen, we tend to think of road-graders opening holes for running backs. Nobody did that better than the brace of guards that boasted two first team All-NWC awards and a first team All-America nod. ADVANTAGE, 2009
Tackles: Lucey/O’Neal vs Heston/Buck
-The players have to play within the system. In 2005 the system was to let Brett Elliott sling the ball all over the yard. To do this, he needed protection, not road-graders. Defenses knew that they were going to see pass, pass, pass in 2005, and they still couldn’t get pressure on Elliott. A lot of the credit goes to the tackles. Heston and Buck were solid players, but Heston’s All-American days were in the future. Lucey’s were now. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Tight ends: Ackerman vs. Sells
-The 2005 team didn’t usually start a tight end, and when he played he wasn’t on the receiving end of many passes. The 2009 team used Sells primarily as a blocker in its high-octane running attack, a role in which he excelled. ADVANTAGE, 2009
Wide Receivers: Allen/Hazenberg/McKechnie vs. Patterson/Slezak/Cederberg
-If there was ever a clone of Trevor Patterson on other Linfield teams, it was Brad McKechnie-good but not great size, good but not great speed, excellent hands, wears #29, and able to light a fire under the team when needed. Slezak and Cederberg were certainly solid contributors, but Trevor Patterson was clearly the best wide receiver on Linfield’s 2009 team, and it wasn’t really close. Brad McKechnie, who was Patterson’s equal, was the third best receiver on the 2005 team, and that wasn’t really close either. Teams had literally no answer for Casey Allen and precious few answers for Brandon Hazenberg. No disrespect to the 2009 guards or either group of linebackers, but 2005’s wide receivers were the most dominant position group of either team. This ranking is not a matter of the 2009 group of receivers falling short; it is an honest assessment of just how unstoppable Allen, Hazenberg and McKechnie were. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Running backs: Kotler/Cruickshank vs. Williams/Lamson
-If the 2005 Linfield team had an Achilles heel, it was the near-total dearth of any ground game. In fact, in the monumental quarterfinal home loss to UWW, Linfield would have been able to milk the clock and win the game had it been able to pick up a single first down in the fourth quarter deep in their own territory. Both Linfield and UWW knew Linfield couldn’t run for the first down, and three incompletions and a punt later UWW was in business in Linfield territory, where they eventually won the game. The 2009 team found ways to run the ball at teams, and finished with a decisive 825 yard cushion over the 2005 team. Put another way, the 2009 team could have lost all of the yards gained by its All-NWC leading rusher, Aaron Williams, and still been within 27 yards of the 2005 team’s total. Ouch. ADVANTAGE, 2009
Quarterbacks: Elliott vs. Boehme
-There is a short list of quarterbacks in Linfield’s history who can legitimately claim to clearly be Aaron Boehme’s superior. A very short list. One of them is indisputably Brett Elliott, a two-time first team All-American, a Gagliardi Trophy winner, and holder of countless records. We tend to forget how seldom Elliott threw an incomplete pass or, God forbid, an interception. Each one was a surprise. It seems like his receivers never had to make ‘tough’ catches unless he was purposely throwing to a pylon or a sideline out of necessity. Boehme was a serious dual threat and a significant asset to the running game who just happened to throw a great ball. Still, a tough second place finish for Boehme. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Punters: Languemi vs. George/Repp
-Season punting yardage average for 2005: 33 yards
-Season punting yardage average for 2009: 33 yards
Screw it. You aren’t here to read about punters. ADVANTAGE: EVEN
Kickers: Dailey vs. Kunioka
-Neither kicker was particularly outstanding on extra points and field goals, though Dailey had more range. However, let’s not forget ulcers that the 2009 team gave fans by surrendering excellent starting field position after short kickoffs. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Punt returners: Hazenberg vs. Sequeria
-PJ’s stats compare surprisingly well with Hazenberg’s, but Hazenberg gets the nod if for no other reasons than that he handled almost three times as many punts, and was a reigning All-American returner. ADVANTAGE, 2005
Kick Returners: McKechnie/Cruickshank/Hazenberg vs. Abbott/Skore/Patterson
-Neither unit set the world on fire with their returns. For lack of a more compelling statistic, we’ll award this one to the unit with fewer fumbles. ADVANTAGE, 2009
-The 2005 team was royalty. The core of the 2004 national title team was in place, and there was never any real doubt that they were the best team in the country. They had a passing game that simply could not be compared to anyone else’s. They had, in throwing just about any pass at all to Casey Allen, a “Cap Boso from Tecmo Bowl” play for goal line situations. They had hard-hitting veterans on defense whose style of play was ideally suited to playing with the big leads that they usually had. But lost in the afterglow of the 2004 national title and the return of Elliott and 3 of his top 4 receivers was the significance of the loss of several key pieces (O.J. Gulley, Eric Hillison, Ty Smith, James Wilson, Thomas Ford, Riley Jenkins, Kiki Sagoian).
-The 2009 team had momentum. From the season’s outset, they were considered ‘just another pretty good’ team, and were not even supposed to win the NWC. 2009’s seniors had endured an un-Linfield-like three year playoff drought and back-to-back-to-back 6-3 seasons. Many of their best players (Boehme, Lamson, Patterson, Estrada, Nishizaki) had missed big chunks of seasons with injuries. While there was not really any concern that The Streak was in jeopardy, there was not any inkling of just how good this team really was. There was a sense that the returning leaders, especially the linebackers, were really special. There was a belief that Boehme would be outstanding, but we had so little real-time game experience to draw on that we didn’t really know. The team seemed to feed off of the uncertainty and frustration of previous seasons and use it as fuel to achieve.
-Ultimately, the 2005 team was a team slightly on the decline. Ever so slightly. But their talent, particularly on offense, was truly phenomenal. The 2009 team was hungry, and poised for a season to take what they had been denied in previous seasons, and was undoubtedly a team on the rise. This gives 2009 an edge in momentum, and tips the scales in its favor. SLIGHT ADVANTAGE, 2009
-Most of the staff was the same for both teams. The 2005 team was rich in returning starters, especially on offense. They carried the weight of high expectations, and the burden of every game being every opponent’s ‘super bowl’. We must not underestimate the difficulty of having a largely one-dimensional offense that opponents STILL cannot stop. The 2005 coaching staff made this work. There were very few tactical mistakes made, and practically none repeated. The 2009 team had to find itself in a lot of ways. The defensive backs were a young group that really needed to come together (and did) in order for the team to win. The 2009 team’s offensive play calling was a little too predictable at times, and it hurt them occasionally. 2005’s was too, but they simply had such talent at quarterback and receiver that it didn’t matter. 2005’s defense thrived on playing from ahead and keeping desperate offenses at an arm’s length. 2009’s defense lived and died by the big play. It is easy to forget how effortlessly Mary Hardin Baylor ran the ball at the 2009 defense in the playoffs before the defense started forcing turnovers and returning them for scores, and how Concordia Moorehead couldn’t take Linfield down despite 2005’s offense ‘only’ scoring 28 points.
SIGNATURE REGULAR SEASON GAME:
-Given recent history, the fact that it was on the road and the fact that is was a chance to make history, the 2005 team’s victory at Southern Oregon was a big one. This was the only regular-season game where there was really much hand-wringing about the outcome leading up to the game. There didn’t need to be. An enduring memory from this game was the Wildcat crowd imploring the coach to go for the 2-point conversion to set Linfield’s score at 50 points instead of kicking the PAT to make it 49 so that the score could match the new number of consecutive winning seasons that the victory assured the program.
-The 2009 team went into Willamette knowing that the road to the NWC title and a ticket to the playoffs went through Salem. Willamette had enjoyed a brief stay atop the NWC, having beaten Linfield barely in 2007 and badly in 2008. From the outset in this game, Linfield took control and never let it go. The final score showed only a three-point score differential, but in reality it was a ten-point game much of the way until Willamette scored a touchdown with just seconds left. The enduring, and symbolic, image from this game was Aaron Boehme trucking Bubba Lemon. Linfield was now indisputably in charge of the game and the NWC once again. ADVANTAGE, 2009
SIGNATURE PLAYOFF GAME:
-In 2004, Linfield had smoked Occidental 56-27 in the first round of the playoffs. You’d think that Oxy would have had that fresh in their minds, and that they would have made some adjustments. They might have. If they did, it didn’t matter. In the 2005 rematch, Linfield jumped out to a 35-7 halftime lead, never looked back, and won 63-21. This game served notice that if anyone thought Linfield had lost a step from 2004, they needed to think again. The 2009 Linfield team, coming as it had from relatively humble roots, hadn’t really played a team believed to be a national power since beating Hardin Simmons in the season opener. When Mary Hardin Baylor came to town, many in the D3 community thought that the Crusaders ground game would grind up the ‘Cats. Linfield’s defense saved the day, forcing 7(!) turnovers, 3(!) of which were returned for scores in a 53-21 beatdown. The 2005 team did what everyone thought it could do, and did it in typically impressive fashion. The 2009 team did what many thought it could not do. SLIGHT ADVANTAGE, 2009
-There are so many plausible ways for this game to go...I can envision 2009’s running attack getting it going against the 2005 defense, keeping the clock ticking and keeping Elliott on the sidelines. I can envision 2005’s aerial show jumping out to a quick lead and forcing Boehme to pass to keep up.
A lot of this comes down to matchups. 2009’s strength, its interior O-line and running backs, would have to get it going against a couple of outstanding tackles and an All-American tackling machine at linebacker. Remember, UWW’s Justin Beaver ran for almost 200 yards against 2005’s defense. If Williams, Lamson, Boehme, et al could approximate this, then the game could be really interesting.
2005’s receivers would have to get open against an All-American safety and Elliott would have to hope that Andrew O’Neal could keep an on-the-rise Eric Hedin out of his grill. Remember, Willamette’s Brian Schoettgen, a tall, athletic receiver, gave 2009’s team fits. And Schoettgen was at best a very poor man’s Casey Allen. And Schoettgen never had Brett Elliott throwing him the ball.
Either of these matchup scenarios, or countless others, could swing the game into one team’s favor. Josh Ort gets off a big hit and knocks Trevor Patterson out of the game, 2009’s passing game is severely limited. One big Jaymin Jackson sack/strip could cause a 14-point swing in 2009’s favor.
So here’s what we KNOW:
-The 2005 team will not be able to run the ball effectively. Kotler and Cruickshank are not going to morph into Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen.
-The 2009 team will give up short fields every time it scores. Kunioka is not going to start putting kickoffs through the end zone.
-Elliott and 2005’s receivers will get their yards and their points. They averaged 48 points, 384 yards, and 4.5 touchdowns per game.
-2009’s defense will, at some point, come up with at least one big, game-changing play. Their biggest playmakers thrived when the opposition threw the ball. This opponent will oblige.
In the end, the 2005 team’s capacity for the big play on offense and its lethal red zone passing game will be just too much for the 2009 team to overcome. 2009 keeps it close and plays their hearts out, but comes up short.
2005 WILDCATS: 42
2009 WILDCATS: 31
-Written by 1993 Graduate and Football letter winner Chris Ellis (Glide, Oregon)