Thursday, November 23, 2017

2017 NCAA D3 Playoff Round 2: Linfield (9-1) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-0)

To be the man....

Here we are once again my friends. I felt like I’ve written this game preview about five times in the last 23 Linfield games. I feel that way because this is the 5th time Linfield and UMHB have played against each other in the last 23 Linfield games dating back to the 2015 playoff game. It’s crazy to have teams that are separated by more than 3,000 miles face square off with more frequency than programs that are within an hour drive of the McMinnville campus but that’s where the Wildcats are once again as they board a plane, that I’m sure the NCAA is hating to pay for, and head down to Belton, Texas to play the number one team, defending champ, and heavy favorite to repeat in 2017, the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor Crusaders.

The Wildcats lone defeat of the 2017 season came at the hands of the Cru in week 2 as UMHB choked out the Wildcat offense and made enough plays on offense and special teams to land a solid 24-3 win over Linfield. There has been a lot of talk about how different both of these teams are since week 2, and that is very true when talking about the Linfield and UMHB offense, but what hasn’t changed is what is special about both of these programs, the defenses.

The UMHB defense is special. It was special in 2016 and in my humble opinion, and I’m not just saying this because Linfield is playing them, the 2017 version is flat out better. The Crusaders are the number one scoring defense in the country in only allowing 8.0 points per game. The Purple Crush defense has only allowed 12 touchdowns and 2 fields goals through 11 games in 2017.  Rushing the football is incredible difficult against the Cru as UMHB only gives up 45.3 rushing yards per game (an average of 1.36 yards per carry).  A big reason for that rush total is the physical and athletic nature of the Mary Hardin-Baylor defensive line and linebackers. The defensive unit is number two in the nation in averaging 10.0 tackles for loss a game. I don’t need to go on and on about the stats the Cru puts up. If you watch them play you already know what makes them great. It’s a huge challenge for this Linfield staff to try to find something to hang your hat on in terms of attacking them offensively.

What’s changed this time around is that the Crusaders have been on a journey on offense in trying to find their guy to pull the trigger on offense. The Wildcats saw converted wide receiver TJ Josey behind center and Josey was effective against the ‘Cats in rushing for a 74-yard TD and going 12 of 17 throwing the ball for 130 yards and a touchdown.  However, it seemed that UMHB was looking for more punch out of the passing game and moved the dangerous Josey back to receiver (where he leads the team with 7 TD receptions) and when with Sophmore Kyle Jones who proved to have a live and accurate arm (82 of 126, 1,162 yards, 9 TDs, 4 picks) but doesn’t have the running threat that UMHB likes in their starting quarterbacks. So the Cru made the decision to insert freshman Carl Robinson III into the lineup and Robinson has been sensational in the role. Robinson was a two-star recruit and 83rd ranked duel-threat quarterback in the country coming right out of UMHB’s backyard (Killeen).  99.8% of Divison III schools in the country are not landing talents like Robinson III in their program.  Robinson makes quick and smart decisions and throws a nice ball. It doesn’t hurt that he can pull it down and punish a defense with his legs as well.

So we all know what our ‘Cats face this weekend. A suffocating defense, dangerous special teams, and an explosive defense. This is a great football team that our Wildcats are facing but all I’m going to say is that I like Linfield’s chances this week a hell of a lot better than just four weeks ago.

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Find a way on offense: We already talk about how good this UMHB defense is.  They are phenomenal at every level and it all starts up front with that defensive line. The task for Linfield’s offense is large but something is happening with this Wildcat offense the past three weeks. The pieces are in place and the health of this group is as good as it’s been since the start of the year. With that said, points and opportunities are going to come at a premium for Linfield. The ‘Cats are going to have to be sound as a pound and when these chances present themselves to put points on the board, Linfield is going to have to grab them with both hands and not let go. 

Bottle up the Cru rushing game: This is easier typed than said but it will be critical for Linfield’s defense to try to bottle up an explosive rushing UMHB running game. Markeith Miller is the main man and one of the very best running backs in the country (886 rushing yards, 13 TDs, and a 5.4 YPR average) but Miller is far from the Cru’s only weapon as freshman quarterback Carl Robinson III and running back Byron Proctor offer up fantastic options for UMHB to lean on.  If Linfield is going to stay in this game the ‘Cats have to keep the Cru’ from revving up this aspect of their offensive game.

Eliminate the big play on Special Teams: Linfield has giving up two special teams touchdowns on the year and both of them to ASC schools, including a backbreaker against UMHB in week two. The Cru’ getting big returns on Linfield isn’t new as they’ve returned at least 3 touchdowns on special teams against the ‘Cats since the 2014 season. Of course, keeping points off the board will be a premium for Linfield so they need to be on the money in finding ways to minimize the Crusader kick/punt return game.

Make Plays on the Football:  In games where two excellent teams are facing each other, making plays on airborne footballs is not a stat that is kept but are some of the most critical moments of a football game.  The Wildcat receivers and defensive backs/linebackers have to be players on fire in these situations as the Crusaders have dudes on both sides of the ball that can change the tide of a game with their on-ball skills. Gotta compete.

Offensive line has to hold up: I’m not expecting this to be perfect at all. The defensive line for the Crusaders is so good so I’m expecting them to make plays but if Linfield is going to have a chance on Saturday, we’re going to need our offensive line and tight ends to play their best football of the year. We’ll need this group to try to make some space for Nnoli to navigate and allow Smith time to process and step into his throws.

Pressure: If the ‘Cats can limit the rush game, UMHB will have no problem in putting the ball in the air. The Wildcat defensive front needs to continue to be a force in making either quarterback Carl Robinson or Kyle Jones as uncomfortable as possible. The more the Wildcat defense can make these quarterbacks throw before they’re ready or put them in the turf, the more of the chance the ‘Cats can disrupt this explosive offense.

Keep mistakes down to a minimum:  Linfield is going to have to be great in this department. The ‘Cats are going to have to keep the penalties down low, make great decisions with the football, and protect the rock.  Both UMHB and Linfield are fantastic takeaway defenses and have offenses that don’t cough it up too often so the game could turn on what team could make an ill-advised throw or cough it up at the wrong time.


‘Cats by 1.  UMHB hasn’t lost a football game since the end of the 2015 season and there is a reason why. They are as complete of a football program that you’ll find with huge amounts of depth, skill, speed, size, and great coaching.  The degree of difficulty in going to Belton and knocking off UMHB is about as high as it gets on the Division III level.  With that said, this Linfield team has something going on. They have such a hard road to travel to get to this point of the year and has developed into a team with a standout defense and capable offense.  It’s going to take every guy on this roster to contribute but the ‘Cats have a shot to get it done. I’m looking forward to seeing Linfield take their shot and see if they can land a bullseye. Go ‘Cats!

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