2009 Linfield vs University of Mary Hardin-Baylor: 4th down stop turns game on head and the flood gates open.
We’ve talked about the 2009 Linfield Wildcats already in this top ten. This team came into the season after another disappointing 6-3 season that saw the ‘Cats take a home loss in the teeth against Willamette but saw that 2008 program make some fundamental choices late in the season that have been paying dividends ever since. The 2009 Wildcats came into the season tighter and more united than in the previous three years and it was evident in their selfless style of play.
After starting the season 6-0, the ‘Cats took control of the NWC race in a 30-27 victory at Willamette to seize control of the NWC and auto-bid race. Linfield didn’t look back for the remaining 2 games as Linfield turned away Puget Sound and blasted PLU to wrap up Linfield’s 1st perfect regular season since 2005. Linfield finished the regular season ranked 5th and was rewarded with a #2 seed in the West Regions of the NCAA Playoffs. It didn’t take Linfield long to prove they deserved those honors as the ‘Cats pelted California Lutheran 38-17 in the first round of the NCAA’s.
On November 28th, the second round of the NCAA playoffs hit the ‘Catdome. Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor faced off in a 2004 NCAA National Championship game rematch. If you didn’t know (how can you not?) the ‘Cats won a tight 28-21 game and UMHB’s head coach Pete Fredenburg was eager to get another shot at the ‘Cats.
In the opening quarter of play I understood why Coach Fredenburg was feeling that way. UMHB rolled out an offensive line that looked like they could not only move hay bales around all day but also chase down receivers in the secondary. They were a fantastic group of athletes that made it look like The Crusaders was cutting through the ‘Cats defense like a hot knife through butter.
The Cru set up their 1st possession of the game at mid-field and four plays later UMHB hit pay dirt on a 24-yard blast right through the ‘Cats. Linfield did manage to answer by putting together a 58-yard drive where Mina Kunioka kicked a 22-yard field goal to get Linfield on the board. The Cru’s offense didn’t blink an eye.
UMHB once against bullied Linfield upfront for 8 consecutive running plays before a 15-yard pass set up a 5-yard plunge to extend their lead to 14-3. The ‘Catdome crowd was unsettled and eerily quiet after that second touchdown. They were thinking the same thing I was at that time, “Oh crap, can we stop these guys upfront?”
Linfield started talking it out on the board and made some slight adjustments in trying to slow down the Cru offense and managed to pick up a fumble recovery and turned the Crusaders away once more as the ‘Cats kicked another field goal to make the count 14-6 late in the 1st half. Linfield was forced to punt deep in their own territory and after a short return The Crusaders started their last significant drive of the quarter on Linfield’s 43 with 5:09 left in the game.
UMHB picked up 6 yards on the 1st play of the drive. Then another 3 yards on 2nd down to make it a manageable 3rd and 1. Another run, but this time the ‘Cats Scotty Ray and Steven Dark shut it down for no gain. Then it was decision time for Coach Fredenburg. The Cru were in complete control of the game in limiting an explosive Linfield offense and finding gaps in the ‘Cats rush defense. He could have pinned Linfield deep and probably walked into the locker room with a 14-6 lead. However, Coach Fredenburg must have smelled blood and decided that being on the ‘Cats 34 yard line would be too much real estate for the Wildcat offense to cover if they failed on 4th down. He decided to roll the dice.
The Cru QB, Steve Noack, lined up under center with an I-Back strong right formation, An extra tight end checked into the game and was lined up off the ball right next to the down tight end to make the formation heavy to the right side. Noack must have stepped away from center at least three times to check with his sideline to make sure the play was still good. It seemed like forever with him stepping back and looking. The suspense kept building each time he stepped back from center. JUST SNAP THE BALL AND LET’S GET IT ON!
With the play clock getting down to three he snapped the ball. The Crusaders elected to run a fullback lead counter to that side they loaded up. It’s a play that needs just an extra beat to develop and that one extra beat is all Linfield needed to blow it up. Linfield senior defensive end Ian Estrada was in a three-point stance between the right tackle and was shaded over the tight end. On the snap of the ball, UMHB’s tight end and tackle crashed down hard to DT Paul Nishizaki and a linebacker. The extra tight end picked up Linfield’s Steven Dark. Ian Estrada was left unblocked. The reason Ian was left unblocked is because the Crusader fullback’s was to kick Ian out and create a track for the offside guard and running back to follow for the 1st down. In design it looked good but Estrada played it perfectly. It was pure instinct built into Estrada from all the years of drilling over and over again as a Linfield defensive lineman. If Ian was to take one more half step up the field he would have been kicked out but he knew the instant he didn’t get contested to get his head and body inside. There it is…the counter. Ian blew it up and created a pile that left the UMHB ball carrier with nowhere to go but into a pile of twisted bodies and fell to the ground short of the 1st down. Perfectly played.
The instant that the ‘Cats and Estrada turned The Cru away the game turned on a dime. Linfield exploded. The ‘Cats offense had their best drive of the game and moved 65-yards in 8 plays to move Linfield within 1 (14-13) on a head’s up end zone recovery by Buddy Saxon. The first half came to an end but the ‘Cats were just getting started.
Linfield’s defense played the most remarkable 3rd quarter. The quarter started with Linfield’s Taylor Skore picking off this pass that set up Aaron Boehme to capture the ‘Cats first lead of the game. Four UMHB plays later and Eric Hedin striped Noack and recovered the fumble for a 37-yard TD rumble to push the Linfield lead to 27-14. The ‘Catdome was ROCKING. UMHB went 3 and out on their next possession and the Linfield offense marched 79-yards to set up this Boehme to Saxon TD strike. 33-14 Linfield.
The Cru’s offense would get on the move and march down to the ‘Cats 15 and looked to crawl back into the game, but once again, the Linfield defense responded. This time it was Hedin with another strip and Christian Hanna with a beautiful 84-yard recovery for TD (Scoop and Score). 40-14 Linfield. The 3rd quarter came to a close after an avalanche of Linfield play making.
UMHB was able to pick up one other score but it was too little, too late. Linfield popped two more huge plays with a Trevor Patterson 70-yard gallop through the ‘Catdome and Freshman Linebacker Bryce Hayunga putting the cherry on top with a 37-yard pick-six to make the final score 53-21.
Linfield’s defense compiled 3 defensive touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and 3 fumble recoveries. Total domination and it all started with a Linfield player just doing his job in a game and season defining moment. That’s Linfield football.
2004 Linfield vs Mary Hardin-Baylor: Fleming's punt blocks sets 'em up and Jenkins knocks 'em down.
O.K. I'm busted here. I'm going with two plays from the 2004 National Championship game. Let's just say that these are tied for the number 2 spot. I do have a good reason for linking these plays together. They did happen on back-to-back plays in the 4th quarter of the biggest game of the year in 2004 and had an incredible impact on who would walk away with Bronze and Gold (SPOILER ALERT: that would be the 'Cats for those of you that didn't know.)
We've touched on the 'Cats 2004 with our number 5 play with Thomas Ford's dagger vs University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The table was set up for this season from the work of the previous seasons and the holdover of talent from 2003. Add in the infusion of Brett Elliott on the roster and the stage was set for an epic run for the 'Cats. After the team solidifying win out at UWSP the 'Cats started to use a four wide attack at almost an exclusive clip. The 'Cats ran out receivers Casey Allen, George Carter, Brett McKechnie, and Brandon Hazenberg and said "You don't have enough people on your defense to guard everyone." That statement would be correct as the 2004 Linfield Wildcats averaged 50.0 points per game. Seriously, this was the point totals on the season from games one through twelve: 58, 46, 40, 48, 56, 35, 69, 62, 48, 52, 56, 52, and 28. This team was a walking breathing video game on offense and who's defense came on strong to only allow 14 points per game during the 'Cats last 8 games on the season.
The 'Cats opened the 2004 playoffs as the number 2 team in the county and spliting 1st place votes with Mount Union. Linfield was rewarded the #1 seed in the West Region and with that came a 1st round bye. Division III playoffs don't have a bye anymore so Linfield probably saved Redlands from another slapping around (too bad). Linfield actually opened up the playoffs in the 2nd round with 52-14 beating of the WIAC champions (UW-LaCrosse). The West Region Finals was the 56-27 victory over Occidental out of the SCAIC (Oxy's Andy Collins was a hell of a quarterback. Rest In Peace Andy. You were a stud.) And Linfield finished off their home season in hosting Rowan out of the NJAC in the National Quarterfinals.
That was a sight to behold. Rowan came in to the game 10-2 and winners of the NJAC. The Profs where a big and intimidating squad that looked every bit of the "Beast of the East" reputation that they earned with multiple trips to the Stagg Bowl in the late 90's early 2000's. I was rather worried how we would match-up with Rowan physically but then the whistle blew to start the game and Linfield laid a 52-0 shellacking. It might have been when this team peaked on the season as Linfield played an almost flawless game from start to finish in front of a bursting 'Catdome crowd. Just give this a watch to get an idea.
So Linfield rolled into the Stagg Bowl looking to finally get a taste of squaring off against Mount Union but something funny happened along the way. An upstart program out of Texas was pulling out a major upset and halting an always heavy favorite with a 24-yard TD pass on 4th and 12 with 48 seconds left in the game to win 38-35. While that shocked the division 3 world, the 'Cats would soon find out that UMHB knew they belong and was playing for keeps.
2004's Road To The Stagg Bowl (This is worth the watch and sets the scene of the game)
Linfield would receive the opening kickoff in the 2004 Stagg Bowl and wouldn't wait long to open up the scoring. It took only three plays before the 'Cats struck on a little bubble screen that Brandon Hazenberg popped for 39-yards and the touchdown. Brad Mckecknie threw a perfect block the seal the lane for Haze and it looked like Linfield was going to do what they've done all season and turn the game into a track meet.
That wouldn't be the case as UMHB's zone blitzing scheme broke up Linfield's next possession and would for large chunks of the game. UMHB's special teams turned in a gem and a 47-yard punt return set the stage for the Cru to get the game even at 7-7 in the 1st quarter. Both teams would trade possessions and a Wildcat missed 30-yard field goal push the game to the 2nd quarter before Linfield would once again strike. This time it was 'Cats running back Riley Jenkins who emerged onto the scene after Thomas Ford missed the entirety of the 2004 playoffs with a broken thumb. T-Ford was a big part of the 'Cats success on the season but Jenkins had a huge post-season and was saving his best for last (Jenkins was name the MVP of the Stagg Bowl). Jenkins took a 2nd down handoff from Elliott and ping ponged his way in the end zone from 14-yards out to push the 'Cats up 14-7.
Then a critical sequence of events went into motion. The Crusaders went on a fantastic drive on their next possession and marched down the 'Cats 4-yard line. On 3rd and Goal, the 'Cats Eric Hillison (who was my defensive MVP of the Stagg Bowl) picked off a UMHB pass at the 2 and returned it out to the 11-yard line. On the very next play, Elliott went for a bomb to try to catch Mary Hardin-Baylor napping but was picked at the 47 and turned back to the 'Cats 30. Then one play after that, UMHB went for their own bomb with better success as The Cru's Josh Welsh hit 27 year old P.J. Williams for the leaping TD pass. The PAT was blocked as Linfield held the slight 1-point advantage. 14-13.
The action continued as the end of the 1st half approached. The 'Cats offense, who had been bogged down all game, streaked 81-yards down the field in 1 minute and 35 seconds and capped off the TD drive with an Elliott 1-yard TD sneak to push out Linfield's advantage 21-13 with only 21 seconds left. That second half was crazy with the wild swings of action and the crazy turn of events. As crazy as that 2nd quarter was, the 3rd quarter was about as pedestrian as it could get.
Both teams traded three consecutive 3 and outs to start the 2nd quarter before UMHB was able to pick another Elliott pass and The Crusaders took that turnover and drove down to Linfield's 9-yard line before having a field goal attempt blocked by Senior Rover Zach Fleming. It wouldn't be the last time Fleming would make himself be known this game. The 'Cats offense continued to sputter early in the 4th quarter with two more short possessions. Once again, UMHB's punt return team came up big with another great return. This one set up the Cru on Linfield's 39 and would get the game within 2 off a straight option play. UMHB went for the 2-point conversion and hit it to tie the game at 21.
Linfield was able to move the ball to the Cru 42 before having to punt once again and pinned UMHB deep in their own territory. Linfield forced the punt after three plays and only 7 yards. 4th and 2 from UMHB's 18 yard line. Linfield's Zach Fleming was lined up on the right side of the punt protection and on the snap of the ball came flying off the edge untouched. The miscommunication was the demise of the play for UMHB as Fleming closed so quickly he was at punter, Hunter Hamrick, before he could even get the ball released for the punt attempt. Fleming played it safe and went for the block regardless and flew in front of Hamrick. Hamrick attempted to drop the ball for the punt but Fleming's left leg came cracking down on Hamrick's legs and caused Hamrick to helplessly drop the ball on the ground. Hamrick fell on top of the ball but the damage was done. 1st and ten Linfield from The Crusaders 10-yard line.
Linfield's offense came out and wasted no time to cash in on the golden opportunity as Linfield went four wide, ran a little rub route on the left side of the play and flared out Riley Jenkins out of the backfield. Elliott immediately recognized that Jenkins wasn't manned up and tossed a little floater out to Riley. Jenkins stuck his left hand up and smoothly brought the ball into his body. From there, Riley gathered his legs and exploded the remaining 8 yards and launched himself from the 2-yard line for the diving go ahead touchdown with 5:51 remaining. Linfield 28, UMHB 21. Incredible. All that was left was for Linfield to close out Mary Hardin-Baylor for the win.
2004 Linfield vs University of Mary Hardin-Baylor: Kelley Bertrand and company delivers Linfield the NCAA Championship.
After the 'Cats took the lead UMHB tried to answer back but was turned away by Linfield on a 4th and 13. Linfield's offense went conservative instead of going for the kill and made sure they took care of the football. After forcing UMHB to exhaust their remaining timeouts Linfield punted the ball away one more time. On 1st and 10 from their own 20 and 49 seconds left, The Cru almost tied the game on a crossing route to P.J. Williams who broke open the play for a 50-yard gain all the way down to the Linfield's 25-yard line. Wow. UMHB had to stay in the air and threw incompletions on the next two plays. A false start pushed back UMHB 5 yards to set up a 3rd and 15. Linfield wasn't going to give up anything deep and allowed an 11-yard sideline route to set up the 4th down for all the marbles.
On 4th and 4 from Linfield's 19-yard line the 'Cats went for broke. Linfield defensive coordinator Joe Smith brought the house but it might have not been not needed. Linfield Senior Defensive End Kelley Bertrand blew out his ACL clean in the season opener vs Western Oregon. It looked like Bertrand was lost for the year but he decided to go for broke and play the remainder of his last season with that torn ACL. Bertrand was a lock 1st Team All-American before the injury but still proved to be a force when he returned at the midway point of 2004. On the blitz call, Bertrand was paired off on UMHB's right offensive guard. Kelley went for the bull rush and collapsed the lineman into the pocket where he engulfed The Cru's Josh Welch to secure the 'Cats 2004 National Championship. No need to write more...just watch and enjoy.