|#3 Josh Hill and the Wildcat offense is going to have a big day against a great UWW defense.|
(Photo Courtesy of Linda MacClanathan)
Saturday was nearly one of the worst days of my life. Halfway through what was potentially going to be the biggest upset of the playoffs, I received a despairing text from my wife. Right before halftime she had ventured back to my brother’s house in McMinnville to check on our dog, Zoe. The text read, “Zoe got out and I can’t find her! Help!” Immediately, I rushed back to the house to help her search. Zoe isn’t very resourceful- she’s quite the princess- and so I was incredibly worried about her wandering so far from anything familiar. Luckily, with some help from friends, we were able to locate the rascal and retrieve her safely. By then, the Cats were about to begin the fourth quarter of their contest with Hampden-Sydney. I arrived back at the Catdome to witness Linfield take a 24-21 lead over the Tigers in a game that had previously gone so poorly for the Cats. I share this story with you because at the time I immediately related my strenuous effort to recover my pup to Linfield’s struggle to defeat Hampden-Sydney. In the first half, Linfield, just like Zoe, was lost- giving up big plays and turning the ball over in momentous situations. However, as they entered the second half they began to find their footing and by the fourth (just as Zoe was found) had rediscovered their identity, shutting down the Tigers with dominant defensive play. A day that started out headed towards disaster, ultimately resulted in a satisfying victory for Linfield, along with the reassuring recovery of my pup. The win secured Linfield’s second trip the NCAA Division III quarterfinals in as many years. After last year’s overtime loss to UW-Oshkosh, the Cats get another chance to take down a WIAC team in the quarterfinals, as they will play four-time champion, UW-Whitewater.
|Zoe made it home safe and sound.|
The Truth: Linfield must secure the ball and avoid turnovers.
The Stats Breakdown: Linfield’s near loss against Hampden-Sydney featured some very uncommon mistakes from the Cats and none were as damaging as the team’s three turnovers. Before Saturday’s game, Linfield had only given up nine turnovers on the entire year (less than one per game). These turnovers were amplified by the fact that all three occurred when Linfield was in scoring position; giving away the ball is bad enough, but giving away the ball and forfeiting points is downright agonizing. Despite the miscues, Linfield was able to fight its way back against Hampden-Sydney. However, against an elite Whitewater team Linfield would find the task of overcoming turnovers far more difficult. The Warhawks boast a tenacious defense that has consistently snatched the ball away from their opponents. On the year the Warhawks have captured 35 takeaways (20 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries), as well as scored five defensive touchdowns. They will certainly be looking to gain an upper hand by means of turnovers and it will be up to Linfield to cede them no such advantage. A zero in the turnover column gives the Wildcats their best chance this Saturday.
What To Watch For: Look for Linfield to stress ball security on the ground and accuracy in the passing game. Linfield will likely utilize some short passes early on to get Yoder in a rhythm and decrease the chances of inaccurate throws. Expect a heavy dose of the run game (although Whitewater is only relenting 71 yards per game) in an attempt to loosen up the Warhawk’s stout defense. Clearly last week’s game did not go the way Linfield wanted; fortunately, it’s unlikely the Cats have a repeat performance in the turnover category, considering the Cats have been an excellent +20 in their takeaway to turnover differential on the year.
The Truth: Linfield needs to have a quick start.
The Stats Breakdown: The game time temperature for Saturday is predicted to be around 18 degrees. Yet, the Cats are going to need to come out hot and get off to a swift start when they take the field at Perkins Stadium. Linfield has accomplished this task before, as the Cats have averaged 30 points in the first half of games on the year (15 in the first quarter alone). A fast start is imperative against a stalwart Warhawk’s defense that, like Linfield’s defense, has shown an expert ability to clamp down in the second half. In the first half of games this year, UWW has yielded 63 points (5 per game) compared to 27 points (2 per game) surrendered in the second half. Only allowing five points per game in the first half is clearly not a weakness, but it does illustrate that the Warhawk’s defense can be more susceptible to scoring in the first half before they can make adjustments. Linfield will need to take advantage of any kink in Whitewater’s armor and a quick start will accomplish just that. It’s unlikely the Cats will match their 30 point per first half average, but they certainly need to do everything possible to grab an early score.
What To Watch For: By no means does this mean Linfield will come out swinging for the fences. Don’t expect the Cat’s to just chuck it downfield like Hampden-Sydney did last week. Instead, look for a methodical approach from Linfield’s offense. This game will not be won in one play but it could be won due to one effective drive. The Cats will seek to establish the run and use play-action to involve the passing game. Linfield simply must avoid early three and outs and turnovers, as well as display a fiery willpower from the minute they step on the field.
The Truth: Whitewater is going to be a stiff challenge.
The Stats Breakdown: Linfield has competed with a number of quality teams this year- PLU, Willamette, Pacific, Hampden-Sydney- but none of these teams exists on the same tier as Whitewater. The Warhawks have always garnered attention and respect due to their defensive expertise, but this Whitewater team has also displayed effectiveness on offense. The Hawk’s defense is allowing a meager 7.5 point per game while limiting opponents to 224 yards of total offense. Additionally, they have seized 35 takeaways and have been especially suffocating on third down; teams are only converting 25% of their third down attempts against the Warhawk’s defense. Incredibly, they have only allowed teams to drive into the red zone 12 times on the entire year- that equates to one red zone visit per game. On offense the Warhawk’s have been just as tough. They average the following statistics per game: 38 points, 175 rushing yards, 229 passing yards, 404 total offensive yards, and 43% third down conversion rate. At their core, Whitewater is a run-oriented offensive attack and claim three backs with over 300 yards rushing and multiple rushing touchdowns; however, their effectiveness in the passing game is difficult to deny. On the year, starting quarterback, Matt Behrendt, has completed 64 percent of his attempts for 32 touchdowns and only one interception. This is not a ball club that turns it over often; in fact, the Warhawks have only seven turnovers on the whole year. The Hawks are also more than capable on special teams as they average 10.3 yards per punt return and boast two return touchdowns. All in all, this week’s game will certainly be Linfield’s greatest challenge of the year thus far; yet, it is a challenge they are certainly capable of winning.
What To Watch For: Whitewater will work diligently to establish their running game- spearheaded by Jordan Ratliffe (5.7 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and supplemented by Ryan Givens (5.5 yards per carry, three touchdowns). However, don’t expect to see a dual threat quarterback this weekend. Behrendt has only gained 88 yards on the ground this year and certainly appears more at ease in the pocket. Yet, much of his success will be predicated on the run, as the Hawks employ a heavy dose of play-action pass plays. Don’t be surprised if some of these play-actions passes are shots downfield. Similar to the past two weeks for Linfield, this week’s opponent possesses a top-flight pass catcher who is used to stretch the field. For the Warhawks that player is 6’5” Jake Kumerow (87 yards per game, 17 yards per reception, 14 touchdown receptions). Linfield will have to bottle him up in similar fashion to the way they limited Holton Walker’s production last week in the second half. To accomplish this task the Cats will also need to apply constant pressure, so expect the Linfield front four to be busy against a sturdy Whitewater offensive line (14 sacks allowed). This week Linfield will play a complete opponent with few weaknesses, however, don’t expect the Cats to be intimidated as they also boast a complete team. This game may just be the type of contest that fans on both sides will be talking about for years to come.
Quick Hit #1: Whitewater has been efficient in red zone as they have converted 84% of their red zone trips into points. However, they have only scored touchdowns on 64% of those red zone drives. Holding Whitewater to field goals in scoring position could be a major key towards gaining the victory for the Wildcats.
Quick Hit #2: Whitewater’s Justin Howard is a pure athlete. The 5’11” junior is averaging 10.4 yards per punt return, 29.2 yards per kickoff return, claims two return touchdowns, and has hauled in 53 receptions for 428 yards and four touchdowns. Linfield needs to have eyes on this guy whenever he’s on the field.
Quick Hit #3: I don’t know how many times I can write this before it seems repetitive but this game will likely be decided by third down performance. In their three closest victories, Whitewater averaged a 30% conversion rate on third down which is 13% lower than their cumulative year average. Linfield’s defense has been dynamite all year on third down limiting opponents to a 30% conversion rate. Whichever team wins third down, may just win this game.