Monday, December 21, 2015

2015 Catdome Family Letter

Team. Excellence. Attitude. Class.
The letter below is from Linfield College Football Head Coach, Joseph Smith.  Hope everyone that's part of our Catdome family has a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Dear Catdome: Merry Christmas!

I want to publicly thank everyone that has helped make our program what it is. Without the many unseen contributions of time, resources, and support by so many former Cats and loyal supporters, our program would not be able to stand amongst the elite in the country with any hope of success.  On behalf of our staff and our entire program I want to thank all you for your support. Our players feel it, our coaches know it, and our program depends on it. That loyalty and love for our program is truly the hidden and unseen foundation Linfield Football is built on.   Thank you!

I am so very proud of our young men. Our goal every year is to use the entire season to become the best team we can be, so that at the end we give ourselves the opportunity to stand before the best in the country, and be measured. 

In the playoffs, we soundly beat a solid Whitworth team, and then faced and met on their terms what we felt was a physical and battle tested Cortland State from New York. Our game vs Mary Hardin Baylor will be one we remember at Linfield for many years. UHMB was a very talented team, and the character and resolve our team displayed that day made us proud.

We earned the right to travel to a very worthy opponent’s house and be measured. We did not measure up that day at St Thomas. I would give most anything for a chance to restart that game, but in real life there is no reset button.

Our team set its sights on winning a National Championship this year. We knew the odds.  We knew stating that goal openly and trying to visualize that goal happening, would set us up for possible heartbreak. Daring greatly, most often ends in failure.  It has to be that way. Greatness is a rare occurrence. We want the young men in our program to dare greatly now, as well as throughout the rest of their lives. They are not “cold timid souls that know neither victory nor defeat”. It has been said, “Not all men really live”.
Our guys do.

This team accomplished much this season. This was one of the most dominating regular seasons I have seen, averaging over 53 points per game and allowing less than 7. Our team seemed to thrive on challenge, as we played our best when we faced the best teams.  The 77-10 win vs Pacific really showed what this team was capable of when we were healthy, dialed in fully, and attacking in all three phases. Winning their 7th straight NWC title and 5 finishes in the Top 5 during that span is hard to do.  I was not sure what to make of our lack of motivation playing the weaker teams on our schedule, as we played our worst vs. the worst teams.   But now looking back and knowing this team’s “thrill of it” and rise up mentality, it makes more sense. Getting to finally compete in the playoffs, was reinvigorating for us all.  There is nothing quite like it.  The highs are so high, and appropriately the low is so very low.  

However, what we are most proud of is not what these young men have accomplished but rather the manner in which they have done it. Much is expected of these young men. They are fine students, they are leaders on campus, they give back to others, and they work their tails off trying to become a master of their trade.  They have all committed to Parker Moore ways in which they are bent on improving themselves and I believe they have honored his memory with how they are trying to live their lives. They will continue. This year they did in fact Play for Moore.

My mother gave me a quote that hangs above my desk.   I believe Margaret Thatcher perfectly described a Linfield Wildcat Football Player.

“The desire to win is born in most of us.
The will to win is a matter of training.
The manner of winning is a matter of honor.”

Play For Moore

Coach Smith

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Linfield’s 2015 season comes to a close at St. Thomas

It was a heck of ride fellas. Thank you.

As you know by now, your Linfield Wildcats 2015 season ended this past Saturday night at St. Thomas University as the Tommies offense pounded Linfield on the ground and whose defense would create short fields and turn back promising Linfield drives by creating 5 takeaways against the Linfield offense.  This 2015 Linfield Wildcat football has been SO good this season and dominated for a large majority of the year but the ‘Cats ran up against a team that Linfield just didn’t have an answer for. It sucks but all you can do is just tip your cap and congratulate St. Thomas in earning a solid victory over our Wildcats.  

It’s always hard to see a season end in the playoffs and especially when this program comes *this close* to reaching that National Championship game. We all know that 31 of the 32 teams that go into the playoffs is going to end the season with a loss and only one gets to hoist up the Bronze and Gold at the end of five weeks.  It’s the brutality of the playoffs and also the beauty of it as well.  Coach Smith said it best in Saturday’s postgame huddle when he told his players that it’s better to dream big and fall hard, than never to put it on the line at all.  He’s right.  That’s what this program is all about.  Dreaming big.  No matter how many times that National Championship trophy falls just outside this programs reach, the ‘Cats will dust themselves off, celebrate the accomplishments of a great year, but get right back to work to chasing that Natty.  It’s what I love about this football program.  Linfield football will never apologize about putting it right out front that this program is working year around in trying to reach that next National Championship.  That’s why you don’t see Linfield receiving conference title rings or even rings when the ‘Cats have been National Runner’s up in the past. Finishing second place in the nation isn’t the ultimate goal…finishing first is.  Some people my roll their eyes at that or think that’s short sighted but Linfield football doesn’t care what those people think.  What matters to Linfield football is developing their current players and finding young people that want to take part of this yearly quest, to find young men that want to be pushed and will accept the challenge to be better people, students, and football players.  That may mean having to give up some of their personal stats, touches, tackles, or even playing time for the betterment of the team.  You’ll have to give up aspects of your social time during the season and off-season in order to improve and help the team.  And you’ll have to be ready to be coached, accept personal responsibility, and be dependable on a daily basis. If there are young people still willing to take this path and journey, then Linfield has a place for them and will continue to put out teams that are more than just a collection of guys playing a game but will continue to create a family for these young men that will serve as a launching pad of success for the rest of their lives.

I LOVED this 2015 Linfield football team. They were a first class group of men and played with skill, tenacity, and with huge heart.  They are just the 7th Linfield team to reach the 12 win mark in a season.  The others are 1982, 1984, 1985, 1992, 2004, and 2009.  That alone is pretty darn awesome. In the 60 years of the streak, only six others reached 12 and now this group is the 7th.  Along the way, the ‘Cats captured the program’s 7th consecutive NWC title (a conference record), absolutely decimated the Northwest Conference,  swept the NWC top honors,  Alex Hoff and Sam Riddle were named West Region players of the year, won three home playoff games (including one that will go down as one of the greatest games in program history), and reached the NCAA semifinals for 3rd time in the past 7 years.  You start adding all of this up and what you have is this 2015 team put together one of the GREATEST seasons in program history.   They were a stinking great football team but I know these guys are hurting right now. That sting may never fully go away (I’m still a little bitter over my 1998 loss at PLU) but over time I hope the players will come to fully appreciate just how truly special this team was.  This wasn’t just a tight knit group of players but this was a group of brothers.  It’s cliché in sports to toss around the word family but with all these coaches and players have gone through over the past 13 months, that’s all I can think of when I think about how this team came and have stuck together since Parker’s death.  It’s been a remarkably resilient group, who has displayed all that’s right with this generation of young people. It’s funny, being almost 40 years old, I hear a lot about this current generation of young people and how the world is doomed because of Millennials are “this” or “that” but I when I spend my time at Linfield football around this group of 18-20 something year old men, all I can think of is that how our communities, country, and world’s future couldn’t be in better hands.

So I want to end this post by personally thanking each and every one of these players at Linfield for giving us another wonderful season of football.  For again, making me feel like a part of this brotherhood and for their efforts and sacrifices to continue to blaze a trail of not only winning but doing it the right way…the Linfield Way. It’s not an easy way to do and that’s why only a select few will take that challenge and make it their own. Thank you for giving your all and for raising that bar for the next generation of Wildcats. I can’t thank you enough.

‘Catdome Today.
‘Catdome Tomorrow.
‘Catdome Forever.

Friday, December 11, 2015

2015 National Semifinals Preview: Linfield (12-0) at St. Thomas (13-0)

Let's go.
4 Teams.
2 Games.
1 Dream.
1 Goal.

This is pretty darn awesome.  You’re Linfield Wildcats are one of four remaining teams in Division III battling it out for the right to play for the National Championship next week in Salem, Virgina. The ‘Cats are on the road this week as Linfield is traveling to St. Paul, MN to play the University of St. Thomas Tommies. In fact, I’m sitting in the lobby of a Courtyard Marriott near the MSP airport typing this while sipping on a really bad cup of hotel coffee.

First, let’s talk about why Linfield is on the road this week.  I’ve had a number of people on social media asking the question: “Hey, Linfield is ranked #2 in the country, why are they traveling to UST this weekend?” I’ll give you the down and dirty version on why the ‘Cats are on the road:  The poll has zero impact on the playoff seeding. It’s a media poll that puts out (I’m a voter) to gauge the strength of division III football and how pollsters think teams will fair once they reach the post season.  Usually, the poll is pretty darn accurate.

The playoff seeding is done by four regional groups of D3 coaches/reps and a national board. They have a set criteria they use to rank the top 10 in each region the last three weeks of the season. Once the final regional rankings are done (we don’t see those), they are sent to the National Committee and they use that information to build the brackets.

When the first regional rankings came out, UST was ranked 1st in the West Region with Linfield being ranked lower and it was that way over the 2nd poll and I’m assuming the final poll as well.  Even though Linfield wasn’t ranked 1st in the West Regional, the National Committee still rewarded Linfield with one of the four 1 seeds but UST was the higher ranked team per the playoff committee and so the ‘Cats are on the road for this one.

And that’s fine by me. In fact, I’m thrilled Linfield is on the road this weekend.  Maybe I’ll come to regret that statement but one of the major hurdles this program is still looking to get over is a playoff road win in the Midwest. Linfield has fallen to UWW in 2009, St. Thomas in 2010, and again Whitewater in 2013 and 2014.  All of those games where hotly contested but Linfield has come up short time and again in the central time zone.  Yeah, having an opportunity to host the Semifinals in McMinnville would be thrilling but the challenge and opportunity to finally bust through on the road in the midwest is too great to kick rocks about not being able to host this weekend.

Standing in Linfield’s way is a tremendous University of St. Thomas football team.  I mean, come on, there are only four teams left in the country.  All four teams that are left are really freaking good but St. Thomas has been exceptional in 2015.  The Tommies currently sit 13-0 and have done it by scoring 53.6 points per game and only allowing 9.3 points per game.  That’s Mount Union type domination and doing that in the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Conference makes it an even more impressive feat. The Tommies feature a bruising running game, a big play passing attack, and an aggressive lights out 3-4 defense that has punished teams from game one all the way though their quarterfinal contest.
The UST offensive line is massive.  This is the largest offensive front the ‘Cats will have faced this season as the Tommies front five average 6’ 4” tall and 306 lbs and toting the rock being the Tommies’ earth movers is Jordan Roberts, who many consider to be the best running back in Division III (1,701 rushing yards, 130.8 yards per game, 5.8 average and 29 rushing TDs).  Balancing out the rushing attack, the Tommies have a highly effective passing game with senior John Gould as the trigger man.  Gould has thrown for 2,796 yards this season, 25 TDs against only 10 picks. Gould is also threat to pull the ball down in the pocket and take off as he’s picked up 247 rushing yards (5.1 yards per rush) and has busted a 62 yard scramble this season as well.

To me, what makes this Tommies offense so dangerous is their tight end Charlie Dowdle. The UST tight end stands 6’4” and nearly 240 lbs and is a fast big play match-up issue for any defense in the country. Dowdle is leading UST in TD receptions (9), yards per catch (21.7), and yards per game (60.2). As big of threat Roberts is toting the rock, Dowdle is the guy that can break games open for UST with his is ability to stem up safeties and corners in man coverage and blow past them.  

On the other side of the ball, the UST defense has been so darn tough this year on the opposition offense.  The Tommies run a 3-4 base defense and have the ability bring pressure for a number of looks and situation. UST’s defense is only allowing 2.3 yards per rushing attempt on the season and teams have only rushed for 83.5 yards per game.  Thowing the football hasn’t exactly gone very well for teams against UST as well.  The Tommies defense has smothered passing games this year to the tune of 133.7 passing yards allowed a game and only 8 passing TD’s allowed.  What makes the UST pass defense so unique is the size and skill of their corners as Mozus Ikuenobe and Jordan Young stand 6’2” and 6’1” respectfully and have been locking up receivers all year long and allowing the Tommies to stack the box and hammer away at offenses.

Rounding out this dangerous UST team is their Special Teams.  Folks around division III feel that UST might have the best collection of special teams play in the country.  UST kicker Paul Graupner is 7 of 11 on the season and a long of 51 yards on the year.  The Tommies have been a great kick and coverage team though out the season and have returned a total of 5 punts and kicks back for TD as well.

Overall, this will be the best team that Linfield has face this year.  The Tommies may not be quite as fast or as athletic as Mary Hardin-Baylor but I can promise you that UST isn’t going to make the type of mistakes UMHB made (taunting, bad snaps, dumb targeting penalties, etc). This is a big and tough football team that is also schematically very good and disciplined.  Linfield is a clear underdog this game as the D3 pundits have all picked UST to move onto the Championship game and that’s understandable.  UST has rolled and Linfield is coming into this game having to survive UMHB and has some lingering health questions as well.  However, I love Linfield’s chances tomorrow.  Yeah, it’s going to be really darn hard but this Linfield team has the talent and heart to find a way to victory.

Get to Know A Wildcat

#5 Mitchell Kekel, Linebacker, Sophomore
Hometown: Beaverton, Or., High School: Westview High

Favorite place to eat in Mac: 1882

Favorite Movie: Southpaw

Favorite Music: Schoolboy Q

Favorite TV show:  The Walking Dead

Favorite Book: The Prince by Machiavelli

Class I Most Look Forward to: Genres of the Iraw War

iPhone or Android: iPhone

Personal Mantra: We don’t ask no questions, all we do is bang

Car or Truck: Jeep

What first inspired you to play football: Growing up going to Oregon State football games made me want to play college football

Favorite Coach Smith Saying: “You deserve nothing.”

Favorite part of playing at Linfield: Post Linfield aspirations: Being part of something bigger than football.

Post-Linfield aspirations: Law School

Wildcat11 Keys To Victory

60 minutes of Linfield Football: Team. Excellence. Attitude. Class.  Nothing more to say than that.

Slow down the UST rushing attack: The running game for UST is the tip of the spear. Linfield’s defense has to find a way to muck up the line of scrimmage and limit the strength of the Tommie run game.  I’m expecting Linfield to do a great job early in the game but the true test for the ‘Cats rushing defense will be in the 2nd half and if our defensive front can take the punishment of the Tommies big boys for four quarters.

Not be one dimensional on offense:  As fun as it was to watch the ‘Cats turn back the clock to 2004/05 last week against UMHB, I would feel so much better if this offense could find a way to move the ball on the ground respectfully against UST.  So much of the Linfield pass game is predicated off the run fake and if the Tommies don’t respect the rushing game our big play passing strikes will be hamstrung. Along with that, being able to find rushing lanes will help keep the UST pressure game in check and hopefully assist in keeping bodies off our Quarterbacks in the pocket.

Limit the UST big play: The Tommies have dudes that can break it open on offense. The Tommies have 7 receivers with long plays of over 50 yards or more and both running backs Jordan Roberts and Tucker Trettel have the ability to bust off huge runs. Linfield has to bottle up the big play and if UST is going to get their points, let’s make them earn them on sustained drives instead of giving up anything easy.

Receivers stepping up the challenge: Our Linfield receivers are playing against the best defensive backfield they’ve seen this year and this will be a critical match-up in the game.  There are going to be balls in the air that the Wildcats receivers are going to have to climb the ladder and make plays on the ball. I’m not expecting to see our receivers running around on UST wide open like last week so our guys are going to have to be willing to stick themselves in dangerous situations in order to makes plays.

Tackling: It sounds still to say “tackling” in a final four football game but Linfield’s defense need to have a money game in the tackling department.  The ‘Cats have to rally to the football and be great in open space one-on-one situations in order to limit the UST offensive production.  If Linfield can have a great tackling day, the ‘Cats will have a chance to win this football game.

Limit mistakes/take care of the football/awareness: Obviously,  Linfield cannot afford a bunch of unforced errors this weekend and taking care of the football is critical in playoff football.  You see it time and again in games where you have comparable teams that the one that can take care of the football is the one that will typically move on.  Along with that, UST has a well earned rep for taking advantage of teams that might be falling asleep at the wheel with fake special teams plays, gadget plays, etc, etc.  Good football awareness will go a long way in keeping that contained.

Special Teams coverage: I’m not asking the Wildcats special teams to break one open or block punts for field goals (I’ll take it) but what I would love to see from the ‘Cats special teams is outstanding coverage on Saturday.  Field position this game could be huge and there is no better way to create short fields but pinning teams deep with great special teams coverage.  UST is outstanding on special teams but Linfield isn’t too shabby as well.


‘Cats by 3. Linfield cannot afford to spot UST a big lead like the ‘Cats did last week.  Linfield is going to have to trade blows with UST early and often and see if the ‘Cats can keep the game close for four quarters and see if they can make some more late game magic to knock of the Tommies and punch their ticket to Salem. Go ‘Cats!

Monday, December 7, 2015

‘Cats Win!!! Linfield completes an epic 38-35 comeback win over UMHB to move on.

#5 Brian Balsiger had a massive day in the 'Cats comeback over UMHB
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here
"The Comeback in the ‘Catdome".  That’s what I’m calling it and I don’t care if it sticks or not.  What a gutsy effort by your Linfield Wildcats this past Saturday against an explosive and talented Mary Hardin-Baylor Football team.  The game started about as poorly as you could imagine with the Cru blasting Linfield to take an early 21-0 lead and it looked like Linfield might get run out of their own building.  UMHB was using the Linfield method of blowing teams out: pin a team deep in their own territory, forcing a quick possession or turnover, providing a short field to your offense, score, repeat.  However, all it took was for UMHB to just provide the ‘Cats with the slightest glimmer of hope and Linfield capitalized to storm back into the game as if there was no doubt that the ‘Cats were going to prevail.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some amazing football games since I first started playing at Linfield in the mid 90’s and there is not a single doubt that this game will be one Linfield fans will talk about for decades to come.  Huge swings in momentum, each team coming up with clutch plays, great individual efforts, and a last second field goal to seal a playoff clinching victory for Linfield. Wow, that game is why these players choose to come to Linfield over other programs out in the far west.  A chance to measure up against one of the premiere programs in the country and have a shot at earning the right to play for a National Championship. A lot of places talk big about this or that, but Linfield continues to walk their talk.

The turning point? With a little over 6 minutes to play in the 1st quarter, a UMHB safety breaks up a 3rd and 9 pass near the Linfield 40 and decides to “shush” the Linfield sideline/crowd.  It was clear taunt and he did it right in front of an official.  Being flagged for the unsportsmanlike conduct was an automatic call.  First down Linfield and five plays later, touchdown Linfield.  After that, it was new life for the 'Cats and a huge momentum swing.  That all could have been avoided by UMHB if the player just jogged back to his sideline after making a routine knockdown.  If that player would have done that, who knows how the games turns out.

After Linfield punched in that first Linfield TD, the ‘Cats would capitalize on the first of three UMHB turnovers to bring the lead to 28-14 and Linfield was “this close” to making it 28-21 right before the break.  After the quick start by the Cru offense, the Wildcat defense was bending some but no longer breaking and allowed Linfield to work their way back into the ballgame.

Even though the ‘Cats were still down 28-14, you could feel the ‘Cats confidence headed into the locker room.  My father, who has been coming to almost 99% of Linfield home games since I started playing way back in 1994 has a little tradition of bringing me something to drink or eat at halftime by the Linfield locker room tunnel.  When I walked up to him he handed me a drink and said “We’re winning this ball game.”  He said he was standing near the UMHB sideline and could just sense their doubt a mile away and knew eventually the ‘Cats would pull it out.  My Dad has always had a remarkable ability to sense the emotional status of sports teams (he’s a long time coach...a great one) and he was 100% right once again.  Even with the remaining deficit there was ZERO doubt of who was in control of that football game in the Wildcat locker room.

In fact, here’s what Coach Smith told his guys at halftime:

Coach Smith was right that it wasn’t right away but eventually the offense started to move the ball, while the ‘Cats defense kept turning UMHB away.   Once Linfield made it 28-21 in the 3rd quarter, it was just a matter of when Linfield tied the game and took the lead.  When the ‘Cats took their 1st lead of the game at 35-28 with 5:19 left to play it felt like it was in the bag. However, UMHB isn’t one of the best teams in the country for nothing.  The Cru popped an 85-yard TD pass to knot the game back up at 35-35 and then the ‘Cats almost blew it with a pick at the Linfield 22-yard line.  It looked like Linfield was in deep trouble but if it was nerves, crowd noise, luck, whatever, the UMHB center sailed one over Cru Quarterback Blake Jackson’s head and it was a dead sprint for the ball.  Jackson had a shot at it but the ball slipped free and Alex Hoff once again was there to pounce.  Wow.

From there, it just seemed automatic.  Linfield moved the ball 33-yards (with another clutch 3rd down conversion) to set up a Michael Metter field goal attempts.  The Cru used two timeouts to try to ice Metter but not a chance.  Michael left no doubt on the kick as it sailed upwards splitting the uprights. Victory, Linfield.

With the win, Linfield moves onto the Final Four for the second consecutive season to face a tremendous University of St. Thomas program in St. Paul, Mn. We’ll go in-depth on the Tommies either on Wednesday or Thursday but what a ride this team has put us on.  What a season. What a team.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

No quit:  You’re probably tired of reading this but I can’t fully express how proud I am of how much heart this Linfield team showed on Saturday.  So many teams would have rolled over when going down 21-0 like that in the opening moments of the game but the coaches didn’t waver and neither did their players.  I know that some fans and pundits will point to UMHB and say they “choked” but that discredits what Linfield did to UMHB.  After going down 21-0, Linfield went on a 38-14 run to close out that game.  That doesn’t happen to the Crusaders but Linfield just did it. We’ve seen it from this program on and off the field but when the chips are down, these young men know how to rally together. Incredible.

Pass Protection:  Major props to the Linfield offensive line and running backs for the job they did in protecting Tommy Knecht.   That was the best defensive line that I can remember coming through the ‘Catdome since I’ve been around and the ‘Cats offensive line stood tall on passing downs. UMHB came in with 55 sacks on the season and Linfield only gave up 2 in 54 passing attempts and for the great majority of the game, the ‘Cats offensive line game Tommy a clean pocket to stand and deliver.  Outstanding job by the ‘Cats offensive line.

#41/#55 Alex Hoff did Alex Hoff type things against the Cru.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here
Defensive Adjustment:  I don’t know if there were any major adjustments made by Coach Vaughan but he was able to settle his guys down after giving up three quick touchdowns to UMHB and Linfield did a fantastic job in keep the ‘Cats in the game while the offense worked the back into it.  The second half is when the ‘Cats defense especially settled down and keep UMHB locked up that entire half except for the big TD strike late. It wasn’t the prettiest of defensive games for the ‘Cats but Linfield made the plays they needed to win the game.

Receivers:  The offense started clicking when this group of receivers started making plays on the football.  That 98-yard touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter was basically two deep plays where Knecht put the ball up and let our guys go up and make a play on the football.  Time after time this group made great catch after great catch and put Linfield in position to win this football game.  Not bad for a group of guys that the NWC coaches didn’t think much of.

Atmosphere:  That was an electric football environment.  The crowd was hanging on every single snap, call, play.  The place was bursting at the seams with emotion and if you missed out, I feel bad for you.  Sometimes the Linfield faithful can get a wrap for sitting on their hands but our fans are incredible smart and they know when it’s time to pitch in for the players on the field and our fans brought their "A" game against the Cru.

The Linfield faithful witnessed an instant classic.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here.
Pressure:  I thought the ‘Cats did a great job in pressuring the UMHB passing game. Linfield sacked Cru quarterbacks four times and applied constant pressure that helped break up the Crusader passing attack and I felt was a big component to limiting their offense in the 2nd half.

Tommy Knecht: What can you say about Tommy’s performance?  Starting his 2nd game ever, against one of the best defensive lines in the nation, and he throws for nearly 500 yards, 5 TD’s, and landed himself in the top 5 of a number of single game records in program history.  I thought TK looked composed and in command from the jump and the team rallied around him. Sam Riddle is this program’s leader and quarterback but that’s about as damn good as it gets for a guy coming off the bench and showing no fear in the face of a pressure cooker situation.  That says a lot about who Tommy Knecht is as a person.

Desire: The ‘Cats had a truck full of this all game long.  Watching Alex Hoff run down TWO errant snaps and beat two skillful quarterbacks for the football was a thing of football beauty.  That is 100% desire.  The offensive line putting it all on line to give Knecht just an instant more time, receivers giving their body up for the ball, Erick Douglas III throwing all 175 lbs of himself in a dead sprint into a UMHB returner, Spencer Payne jumping out of the ‘Catdome for a critical 3rd down conversion, Dylan Lewis laying completely out to save a kick return for TD, etc, etc, etc.  Linfield was full of heart and desire on Saturday and it was an honor to watch these guys lay it on the line.

The Bad

Opening 5 minutes:  That was about as badly as you could have scripted an opening five minutes if you were Linfield. The defense looked confused; the offense was turning it over deep in Linfield’s own territory, and made it too easy for UMHB to punch it in.  While the ‘Cats were able to pull it together and storm back against the Cru, Linfield CANNOT afford to do that against UST.  They’re too well coached, too talented to spot a lead like that this Saturday.

The Ugly

Not a darn thing:  An epic football game, electric crowd, playoffs, storming the field, tears of joy, and  #35 being raised above the team in celebration….that’s about as good as it gets.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

2015 National Quarterfinals Preview: Linfield (11-0) vs Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-1)

This is what you play for.
247 Division III football teams started fall camp in August. Only 8 teams remain standing.

8 Teams.
4 Games.
1 Goal.
1 Dream.

You have to love it that Linfield is once again playing football in December.  What an honor and pleasure it is to be only one of eight teams still remaining in the NCAA Division III playoffs as Linfield will host the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders in one of four Quarterfinals games being played this Saturday.

Every game this weekend is a who’s who of Division III football; Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, St. Thomas, Wesley, UW-Oshkosh, Wabash, UMHB, and Linfield. These eight teams have a combined record of 91-4 this season and are currently the #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #7, #11, and #13 ranked teams in the country according to   Every one of these teams expects success each season and expects to make deep runs into the playoffs and earn an opportunity to play for a National Championship.  There's no more fodder left in these playoffs.  It’s the best of the best and Linfield is no exception as one of the elite in the country is coming to the ‘Catdome this Saturday and UMHB has the Stagg Bowl on their minds and vengeance in their hearts.

The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor is a great football team and easily the best team Linfield will have faced this season.  The Crusaders are rich in talent and have no weak links in all three phases of their game.  It’s a complete football team, and in many ways, a better version than last year’s UMHB team that Linfield was able to knock off in Belton, Texas.

The Cru’s 2015 started off like most UMHB seasons, as the Crusaders just bowled over opponent after opponent and looked to be in cruise control for another undefeated season and high playoff seeding once again. However, UMHB was upset in their 8th game of the season by Hardin-Simmons (29-26) and the Cru was put in a situation they haven’t had to be in for a very long time and that’s a team having to play their way into the playoffs.  UMHB responded in the final two weeks of the season in dumping Howard Payne and East Texas Baptist by a combined score of 134 -34.  UMHB received one of the coveted Pool C berths (at-large) and was shipped off to play HSU for a 1st round rematch where the Cru dispatched the Cowboys 37-19 and then handled Huntingdon at home 43-22 to punch their ticket to McMinnville.

In many ways, UMHB’s 2015 is very similar to Linfield’s 2014. A true National Championship contending team and that had a bad Saturday against the wrong team.    That loss to Hardin-Simmons immediately put UMHB into playoff mode and the Cru has responded big time and look to carry that momentum into this weekend as their players and staff have been nothing but respectful but also have made it clear that they’re relishing the opportunity to give Linfield a dose of their own medicine and eliminate the ‘Cats from the playoffs.

The way that UMHB is planning on doing just that is using an up-tempo but balanced offense, a smothering 4-3 defense, and an outstanding special teams group that’s capable of breaking games wide open.

The Mary Hardin-Baylor offense has once again been fantastic this season in averaging 51.1 points per game.  The Cru average 227.2 rushing yards per game (5.0 per carry) and 258.2 passing yards (14.7 yards per completion).    The Cru primarily run out of the gun with a single back but will go two-back as well.  UMHB loves the play-action pass game and with that running attack you can’t blame them.  It’s a lot of zone read look, pop up, and deliver the ball to your play makers and let them work.  UMHB’s starting QB, Zach Anderson, has been highly effective this season in throwing for 2,419 yards, 22 touchdowns, off of a 60.4% completion rate. UMHB and Anderson will throw the ball deep as the Cru has some fine receivers on the other end that fit their system perfectly.

However, the UMHB offense starts with the running game.  The Cru will be attacking Linfield with a big and athletic offensive line (average about 6’ 4” and 282 lbs) and with a thunder and lightning running back duo in Malcolm Miller (thunder) and Duane Thompson (lightning).  Along with the two running backs, both Zach Anderson and Blake Jackson (UMHB’s 2nd QB, who will play against Linfield) are both fine running threats as well (the two QB’s have rushed for 851 yards and 13 TD’s this season).  It’s an offense that’s very much like Linfield, in that, if the rushing game is going (it typically is) the rest of the offense is going to open up and be hard to keep out of the end zone.

Linfield fans probably still have a pretty good memory of UMHB’s special teams from last season and it’s not surprising that the Cru is still really darn good here as well.  The Cru has one of the better punt and kick return groups in the country led by corner back Bryce Wilkerson.  Wilkerson averages 14.8 yards per punt return (2 TD’s) and averages 27.1 yards per kick return (1 TD).  Linebacker Baylor Mullins is back as the UMHB punter, and yes, he’ll pull it down and rush for 1st downs if he sees an opportunity.  But where UMHB has probably improved the most on special teams is place kicker Jacob O’Neill.  Coming into Saturday, O’Neill is 18 of 23 on the year (78.3%) and is 6 of 8 on field goals of 40-49 yards.  You can tell UMHB puts time into Special Teams as a program and will be a key match-up for the ‘Cats.

Last but not least, let’s talk UMHB defense.  The Cru doesn’t do anything fancy or exotic with their defense.  They’re going to play in their 4-3 cover 2 defense for big chunks of the game and dominate you with their defensive line and let their athletic linebackers and defensive backs blanket your receivers.  The UMHB defense has racked up 55 sacks on the season with almost every single one of them being generated by the Cru’s defensive front four.  Along with the sack numbers, UMHB has racked up 137 tackles for loss, only allow offenses to convert on 3rd down 25% percent of the time (51 of 2015), give up only 1.9 yards per rushing attempt, and have taken away the football 35 times (22 picks, 13 fumble recoveries).  So the Cru has all of that going for them, which is pretty good.

So, I’ve already burned through over 1,100 words talking about how great UMHB is and for a good reason.  With all of that said, this Linfield football is capable and has the talent to win this football game.  No doubt, it’s going to be a huge challenge and battle but would you want it any other way?

Wildcat11’s Keys to Victory

60 minutes of Linfield Football:  This is another all hands on deck football game for Linfield.  Nobody on this roster needs to do more than just their own job.  Every play, your job. Over and over again. Your job.  This team and program has thrived for years on the faith and trust that the man next to you is going to handle their own responsibility and when Linfield does that the ‘Cats will be in great shape.  There’s going to be high amounts of adversity throughout this game but Linfield has to stick to their core values and belief. Team. Excellence. Attitude. Class.

Contain the UMHB run game:  Easy to type, but much harder to do.  Linfield is going to get a heavy dose of Miller, Thompson, Anderson, and Jackson this Saturday and if the ‘Cats have visions of winning this football, Linfield has to do a solid job of bottling up the Cru rushing attack. First, Linfield has to have excellent gap responsibility. Second, the ‘Cats have to have a great day of tackling.  Miller gave Linfield trouble last year with this bigger body and Thompson, Anderson, and Jackson are all elusive rushers.

Find a way to run the ball effectively:  The ‘Cats have to find a way to get Payne, Willis, and Choisser open lanes if the offense is expecting to put points up against this defense.  It’s going to start up front with the Linfield offensive line and the ‘Cats are facing an outstanding defensive line and linebackers.  If the ‘Cats are able to rush the ball, it’s going to open up the Linfield offense to attack the UMHB secondary.

The Linfield secondary having a day:  The UMHB receivers are dangerous.  You’re not going to see an overly tall group out their but they’re fast, very good route runners, and are dangerous with the football in their hands.  Once again, Linfield’s outstanding secondary is going to need to come through in a big way to limit the big play and be great in open space.

Linfield receivers stepping up:  If UMHB’s defense shuts down the Linfield rushing attack, the fate of the ‘Cats offense is going to rest in our receivers’ ability to get open and make plays on the football.  Obviously the NWC coaches didn’t think very highly of our receiving group (not a single NWC honor) but over the past month this group has grown tremendously. They have to come to play this Saturday.

Protection: Huge match-up between our offensive line and the UMHB front four. Did I mention that these guys can get to the QB yet?  Defensive End, Teidrick Smith has 18 (!!!) sacks on the season, while running mate, Jon Isom has 12 of his own this season.  Then up the middle you have DT Haston Admas with 9.5 sacks and Brazos Fuller with 5.5.   It doesn’t matter who’s standing behind the Linfield offensive line as it’s a massive key to keep our quarterbacks upright in the pocket and allow them to get the ball cleanly off.

Pressure:  Linfield has to disrupt the passing attack by UMHB and the ‘Cats can do that if they can get Anderson and Jackson off their mark.  UMHB’s QBs will get rid of the ball quickly but Linfield is going to have opportunities to work moves and see if they can get to the Quarterback.  You know UMHB spent a lot of time on what to do with Hoff this week, so it’s going to have to be McGovern, Schwartz, Farber, Handran, Reimer, Kekel, to make UMHB pay if they send extra bodies at Hoff.

Decision Making/Taking Care of the Ball: Ball security and decision making with the football was already going to be of critical importance for this game but with the weather forecast is calling for a wet one that just makes securing the ball all that much more critical.  Linfield has to be GREAT with decision making.  No stupid penalties, no personal battles. Play a hard and clean game and take care of the football.

Special Teams: Linfield HAS to be great here. UMHB is too good on special teams to let them break off huge returns or extend drives off of not paying attention to Mullins on punting downs.  Also, the Cru' has been good with blocks as well so there cannot be a letdown in any aspect of special teams.


‘Cats by 3.  I have butterflies and I’m just a blogger/videographer, I can’t imagine how players from both Linfield and UMHB are feeling right now.  If you’re on the fence about getting to the game, don’t think too much about it.  Just get to the game.  It’s not too often you get two of the very best in the country together at the ‘Catdome and Linfield will need every voice they can get. For the game, Linfield is going to have to play a great game in order to pull it out but this team is built for a chance like this. One play at a time. Go ‘Cats!

Monday, November 30, 2015

‘Cats win!!! Linfield slays the Red Dragons 38-22 to move onto the National Quarterfinals

#17 Levi Altringer came up with a beautiful toe tapping TD for the 'Cats against Cortland State
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here.
After a rough 1st half of play, the ‘Cats used a suffocating defense and effective offense to pull away from a hard-nosed and talented Cortland State Red Dragon football team this past Saturday in the ‘Catdome. 

That 1st half was concerning because I thought Linfield was playing the game at Cortland State’s pace and the Red Dragon’s had extensive experience in gutting out close victories and Linfield had not been in that position all year long.  Going into halftime, I had a few people mention to me that some Linfield fans were wondering how badly the ‘Cats were getting chewed out by Coach Smith.  That just made me chuckle.  There was zero panic or coaches freaking out in that Linfield locker room.  It’s just not Linfield or Coach Smith’s way of going about their business.  In fact, here is what Coach Smith told his team before headed back out the field in the 2nd half:

That’s why Coach Smith is a leader of men.

That second half was what you’ve seen this Linfield team do all year to teams.  Special teams pins them deep, the defense forces short drives or create turnovers, and the offense delivers.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Ballgame. 

A big tip of the cap to Cortland State.  That was a well-coached, physical, talented, and clean playing group. They represented the Empire 8 well and this past weekend is what I love about division III playoffs…the chance to play someone when you have no idea what’s in store.  The staffs only get a small glimpse of film to build a game plan and you roll out your guys and let it rip.  It’s exciting, fresh, and you mix that in with a cold but beautiful late November Saturday and that’s about a perfect small college football experience.

Obviously, the injury to Sam Riddle was a big hold your breath moment for Linfield’s fan base.  Sam is one of the best QB’s in division III and a leader.  He came back out after the lower body injury for one last drive before half but the staff shut Sam down for the rest of the day and handed the keys over to Tommy Knecht. Other programs might have rolled Sam out there in that second half but there’s a reason why they didn’t.  The staff knew and trusted that Tom would be able to lead the offense and get points on the board with Sam sidelined.  Knecht and the Wildcat offense delivered on that trust to the tune of 24 second half points on the way to victory.  I don’t know what Sam’s status is going forward, I’ll leave that to the staff to disclose at the appropriate time.

With the victory, Linfield now advances to the NCAA Quarterfinals for the fourth consecutive year. Once again, Linfield will face University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in a rematch of last year’s 2nd round game.  This year’s game is like a mirror image to the 2014 game with now UMHB being the team to stub their toe in the regular season and goes on the road to play a top 5 team in Linfield. In reading the local Belton news, the Crusaders are relishing the opportunity to get some payback on Linfield from last season and previous playoff games.  We’ll get more in-depth about UMHB but this will be by far the best team Linfield has seen in 2015 and it’s going to take a monster effort by Linfield to knock off what is an ultra-talented football program.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

2nd half response: Cortland State challenged Linfield, as I expected, and I was impressed with how Linfield responded.  The Red Dragons were the team that won tight game after tight game but Linfield showed no sign of being shaken by a tight score and very uneven half of play.  Linfield when on that 24-0 run to blow the game wide open and did with a large helping of adversity as Sam Riddle left the game with a lower body injury.  Instead of retreating, the ‘Cats charged forward with a fantastic stretch of football.  It showed me what this team is made of.

Defensive effort:  The Linfield defense was top notch this past weekend.  The ‘Cats first defensive unit was freaking great once again on Saturday.  Beside one long TD pass by Cortland Sate in the 1st quarter, Linfield’s defense ate up the Red Dragon offense with speed and athleticism. You could tell that the Red Dragons had no answer for Linfield’s defense as their running game was nonexistent and they couldn’t get Linfield off balanced with the receiver screen game.  That left the vertical passing game as the Red Dragon’s only real option and Cortland State QB Steven Ferreira is probably still in an ice bath from the beating the ‘Cats put on the Red Dragon QB.

Passing attack: Linfield’s passing game was on-point against Cortland.  Sam Riddle cut up the Red Dragons for 172 yards and 2 TD’s on 17 of 19 passing before leaving the game and Tommy Knecht followed that up for another 106 yards on 10 of 16 passing and two more touchdowns.  I thought the Wildcat receivers were excellent on the ball and ran some great routes to shake Cortland defenders.  The ‘Cats will need that passing game again next week against the Cru.

Red Zone offense: The ‘Cats went 4 of 5 in the red zone against Cortland State and I loved the varity of ways Linfield put the ball into the end zone.  Johnny  Carroll has turned into a reliable fade target in the red zone, Levi Altringer just continues to be huge out of the tight end position, and I loved the play action game in the red zone setting up wide open TD tosses. The ‘Cats can just beat you in so many ways in the red zone.

Pressure:  8 QB sacks on the day.  That’s not a typo.  What I loved about this pressure day is that 7 out of the 8 sacks were racked up on the Linfield defensive line (2 – Hoff, 2 – Schwartz, 2 – McGovern, 1 – Farber).  As an offense, you’re hosed if Linfield can generate heat like that with their front four and leave extra defenders in coverage.  Watching tape, it was a pass rush clinic and what about that hurdle/sack by Hoff?  My goodness…

Tommy Knecht:  There are others guys that have had to step in for injured Linfield starters this post season but quarterback position is just different. You might be able to cover up a hurt DB or receiver but you can’t hide it when your starting QB goes out.  For the great majority of teams in Division III when your 1st string QB goes out, it means disaster.  Thankfully, Linfield is in the position of having a player of Knecht’s quality to come in and lead the offense.  Tommy was effective in that 2nd half of football with both his arms and legs and it’s a tribute to Tom’s mental toughness and preparation to be able to go into a pressure situation and lead.  

#2 Dylan Lewis and the 'Cats DBs were feasting on the Cortland State passing game.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here.
Linfield defensive backs:  There were some Empire 8 fans that were curious to see if Linfield’s pass defensive effectiveness was due to talent or lack of quality competition.  After Saturday, Empire 8 fans were pretty quick to tip the cap and say….yeah, Linfield’s defensive backs are pretty darn good.  Cortland State QB Steven Ferreira was only picked off twice all year long and the Wildcat secondary got him three times on the day.  I’ve been tooting our secondary’s horn all season long and they keep making me look good.

The Bad

1st half mistakes:  Linfield played an ugly 1st half of football.  Cortland State was a good football team but the mistakes I’m talking about are of the unforced kind.  Penalties that stunted Linfield drives or extended Cortland drives, blown assignments, bad snaps, etc.  The ‘Cats CANNOT have that kind of half of football this weekend against UMHB and expect to survive.

Last 3 minutes and change: The game was well out of reach when Linfield put a final dagger in Cortland Sate to push the Linfield lead to 38-10 with a little under 3:30 left in the game so it was a bummer to see the Red Dragons be able to get a quick TD, recover an on-sides kick, and get another quick score to close the gap to 38-22.  It didn’t mean very much but I would have liked seeing our young defenders offer better resistances on those last two Cortland drives.

The Ugly

Playoff Injuries:  Being able to absorb injuries during the playoffs is part of the deal.  The ‘Cats have already lost 1st team All-NWC Linebacker Jason Farlow and 1st team All-NWC guard Steven Nnabue before the Whitworth playoff game, DB/LB Wade Ransom was injured late against Whitworth, and now the NWC Offensive Player of the year Sam Riddle is questionable after a lower body injury sustained during the 2nd quarter against Cortland State.  You hate seeing these guys put in all that work and performance to only get sidelined.  However, football is a team sport and when someone goes down the next man has to be ready to step up and we have seen Ryne Furmark put in two solid games at guard, Linebacker Jake Reimer take on more snaps and lead Linfield in tackling against Cortland State and Tommy Knecht come in and lead Linfield to 24 2nd half points to seal a 2nd round playoff win.  That’s what great teams do when injuries hit.  Next ‘Cat steps in and steps up.