Monday, November 26, 2012
‘Cats Win!!! Linfield turns over cards and hits a full house in 30-14 win over North Central.
Bam! Wow, what a great day at the ‘Catdome on Saturday. North Central was a tough and talented team but Linfield was flat better this past Saturday. Coming into the game the ‘Cats and their fanbase had some concerns and questions about if this Linfield team was up for the challenge in taking on a team that just put a whipping on a California Lutheran squad that had played Linfield close the past two seasons. Compounding those thoughts was the ‘Cats tough 1st round game vs Pacific Lutheran where the ‘Cats offense was limited and had to turn back a huge PLU run in the 2nd half. Folks around the nation might have been thinking Linfield was vulnerable. I didn’t buy it.
Not only is Pacific Lutheran a good team but their coaching staff and players knew the ‘Cats better than anyone in the field of 32 teams. Linfield had their hands full earlier in the season when the ‘Cats beat the Lutes up at Sparks and Coach Smith and the staff knew beating PLU twice in one season was going to be a tough road to travel. Was Linfield happy with their performance in round one? No. However, they won and moved on and that’s all they wanted to do. This weekend was more reflective of what I was expecting the Wildcats to look like this playoff run. The staff turned Mickey Inns and the passing game loose, the Wildcat defense continued make plays, and the Linfield kicking game continued to shine. Linfield limited their mistakes while taking advantage of North Central’s. Add that all up and you had a quality playoff victory over a champion of a well-regarded Division III conference.
North Central came to the ‘Catdome just as I was expecting them to be. They had some good size, athletes all over the field, a tremendous running back (best I’ve seen since Linfield played Whitewater and Coppage in 2009), and solid special teams. NCC has all the pieces in place to be a serious Stagg Bowl contender. However, they met a Linfield team that was sharp and played smart football. As I’ve written all year long when Linfield doesn’t hurt themselves and execute at a high level, the ‘Cats are awfully tough to beat. North Central found that out the hard way. Right after the game, a lot of people pointed out the unforced turnovers by North Central as why they might have lost that game. True, NCC did put the ball on the ground with some bad exchanges but it appears that’s been a problem for NCC all season long. If you want to be truly elite you have to find ways to minimize your weaknesses during the playoffs. Linfield did that this past Saturday and North Central didn’t. As for the five interceptions, that was due to a mixture of the sheer amount of pressure Linfield’s defense front put on North Central’s QB and our defensive backs and linebackers flat making plays on the football. Linfield “only” had three sacks but North Central wanted nothing to do with dropping back deep in the pocket. You could sense the NCC quarterback feeling the pocket dissolve around him time and again. That was a big factor in Linfield’s defense making plays on the ball.
This is the 6th time since 2002 that the ‘Cats has advanced to a regional finals and will be the fifth time the ‘Catdome has hosted the regional (2002, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2012). As a fan, I’m so thankful to get to experience this once again. It’s a magical time to be a fan of one of the last eight teams left. Everyone is a damn good football team at this point. There are no pretenders but only contenders. That alone should get you fired up for the opportunity to take part in what should be a tremendous game against a highly skilled and talent Wisconsin-Oshkosh team out of the WIAC. The Thanksgiving break and Civil War have played havoc with the attendance the past two weeks (as it does across the entire Division III field) but now is the time to experience playoff football in December. Beg, barrow, or steal (ok…don’t steal) the extra $12 to get out to the game this weekend and get loud. It should be a great atmosphere and well worth the price of admission. Go ‘Cats!
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Playing Linfield Football: Coach Hazenberg nailed it after the game when he said this team was emotionally spent after Saturday. After the PLU game that feeling wasn't the same. Being emotionally spent a good thing. That means this team went out and left it all on the field and didn’t hold back or tried to save anything for the next week. That’s what you have to do at this stage in the playoffs because the level of difficulty keeps increasing. The ‘Cats expended all of their energy and emotions they had and let the score settle itself. It was a great day of Linfield football.
The Passing Game: The Linfield passing game was fantastic. North Central had a stand-out secondary but the ‘Cats attacked them from the first possession and had an effective day throwing the ball. Mickey Inns completed 24 of 39 passes for 305 yards and 2 touchdowns. I thought the ‘Cats wide receivers were fantastic in adjusting to the game and finding the soft spots in the Cardinal defense. Inns did get sacked 4 times but for the most part didn’t get hit very much as the offensive line and running backs created a solid pocket for Mickey to deliver. A damn good day for the ‘Cats passing attack.
Defensive Pressure: The ‘Cats were below their typical 5-6 sacks (had 3) but the amount of pressure they put on the NCC quarterback was substantial. Stanek took some crushing hits after delivering the ball and spent a good amount of time running for his life after his 1st option wasn’t available. You could feel Stanek not wanting to be in the pocket for very long and I can’t blame him. The pressure was huge.
Making plays on the football: If you were a former Linfield defensive back watching that game, you had to be swelling with pride. Being in my mid 30's I shouldn't be typing this but our defensive backs “balled out” this weekend. I’m not talking about only the picks but the ‘Cats secondary and linebackers challenged a good Cardinal receiving group on just about every ball put into the air. This was the group that had all the questions headed into season due to their lack of starting experience but they continue to get better as the season has progressed.
Kicking game once again: Kicker Josh Kay and Punter Josh Repp continue to shine this post-season. Josh Kay crushed a 44 yard field goal and had 4 touchbacks on his 6 kickoffs during the game. Kay has looked every bit of the Josh Kay of 2011 this post-season. Josh Repp has been huge for Linfield this season and has continued to be clutch over the past two weekends. Repp had a 43.9 yard average over 7 punts on Saturday and has been a key part in Linfield winning field position.
Playing Smart Football: Only 3 penalties and one turnover. I’ll take it! If Linfield continues to play a clean brand of football, it’s going to take an excellent effort to knock off this Wildcat team. The ‘Cats played a smart brand of football and made great decisions. I loved seeing that.
The Linfield Faithful that came out: It was Thanksgiving break (really for the past two games), the weather looked like it was going to be poor, and the Civil War (Oregon vs Oregon State) was also kicking off at noon. People had every reason to not come to the game this weekend but a great group of fans showed up at the ‘Catdome and was just as loud as if 4,000 fans were packed around Maxwell field. Even if the student base was non-existent, the fans that showed gave their all. Great work ‘Catdome family!
Allowing Kukuc to get loose: 25 attempts for 192 yards (7.7) average: I can’t be too upset over this. 1) Nate Kukuc is a hell of a football player. Guy has a great combination of toughness, agility, and speed. Props to him for making things happen for North Central. On the flipside, the ‘Cats defense still gave up 192 yards rushing to a single back. Linfield would hold Kukuc in check for a few plays and then he would bust a 25 yard gain. That seemed to happen the whole contest. The nature of North Central’s offense opened up some of those opportunities for big rushing chunks but I hope the ‘Cats defense will shore that up moving forward.
‘Cats Rushing Attack: Linfield didn’t put as much emphasis on the rushing game and the stats reflect that. Linfield only rushed for 69 gross yards (26 net) on the day. I’m not going to be too rough on the rushing game because Linfield put the saddle on the passing attack but at some point Linfield will need to be able to pick up some yards running the ball. I hope it will be there when we need it most.
Taking the foot off the gas when Linfield went up 30-0: I think Linfield learned a lesson on Saturday. When Linfield went up 30-0 late in the 3rd quarter the team got a little sloppy. A blown blocking assignment on the PAT team started it and you could feel Linfield go into “it’s in the bag” mode. The problem is you can’t do that against teams of this quality. The foot needs to be on the gas the whole game. You give any of these teams some room and they will surge.
Seeing players get hurt: It’s not my place to disclose or talk about injury specifics so I’ll keep it generic. Football is a tough and violent game. Always has been and no matter how they legislate the game, there is risk whenever you step onto the field. With that said, it doesn’t make it any easier when you see players get severely hurt. Being around the team, you get to know the players and their families a little. It just makes your stomach go in a knot seeing a young man that’s worked so hard to lose their season. It happens on every team and every year but it never makes it easier. I wish nothing but great football and even better health for all eight teams that remain in these playoffs. Best of luck to all.