Thursday, November 16, 2017

2017 NCAA Division 3 Round One Preview: Linfield (8-1) vs Hardin-Simmons (9-1)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year to be a Division III football fan, and for 14 out of the last 18 seasons, a Linfield Wildcat fan as well, as the playoffs are once again here and YOUR Linfield Wildcats are back in the hunt.  Selection Sunday was pretty nerve-racking as you can never know what the NCAA committee will decide but the penny pinchers once again decided to put the NWC/ASC/SCIAC sub-bracket together with sending the SCIAC champ to UMHB and then pairing Linfield with Hardin-Simmons. The only difference this year is that Linfield gets the honors of hosting the Cowboys in the ‘Catdome instead of hitting the road. To be honest, as hard as it is to see Linfield in a top 10 showdown in the first round, while other top ten teams are playing schools named after the word you say when you strike gold, but I’m thrilled that the ‘Cats will get one more chance to suit up and defend the ‘Catdome.

And Linfield will be defending the home turf against one of the best teams in the country in the 5th ranked Hardin-Simmons Cowboys. Linfield fans are familiar with the ‘Boys at this point in seeing HSU six times over the past 11 seasons. The most recent was Linfield’s 24-10 first-round playoff victory in Abilene last season and I’m sure that isn’t lost on the Cowboys and an extra incentive for HSU going into this weekend.  HSU is once again 9-1 at this point in the season with their lone blemish being a tight loss against their hated rivals and ASC foes, the UMHB Crusaders. The HSU team Linfield is facing this weekend is just what you would expect to see out of a top 5 team out of the ASC.  The Cowboys put up pinball-like numbers on offense, play a physical and tough brand of defense, and have guys all over the field that can make big plays to change the course of the game.

Yes, the offense is legit. Hardin-Simmons is currently the 4th best offense in the country in terms of yards per game (522.6), and 9th in the country in scoring (45.1 points per game). The Cowboys work almost exclusively out of the shotgun and throw a ton of formation at you in what is a balanced attack that can pound you between the tackles, work you over on the screen game, move the chains, or hit you for the big play.

Leading the charge on offense for Hardin-Simmons is the talented 1-2 punch of quarterback Landry Turner (which is the perfect name of a quarterback of Texas area football team) and running back Jaquan Hemphill.  Turner is the straw that stirs the drink for the Cowboys’ offense as the redshirt freshman has put up outstanding numbers in what was a shortened season for the QB. Turner has passed for 1,596 yards on a completion rate of 70.9%.  You can also add 20 touchdowns against only 5 picks against his name for an average of 266 passing yards per game.  The QB is a talent but making his success that much easier are the targets and Turner has a couple of gems.

Receivers Reese Childress and Devonte’ Walker have been the go-to guys in the passing attack and it’s easy to see why. Both are lanky targets at 6’1”, have excellent speed, and each possesses great on-ball skills as well.  Childress and Walker both have about the same amount of catches per game with 4.4 and 4.3 each and both have about the same amount of yardage per game as well with Childress catching for 62.2 YPG and Walker with 69.7 YPG. Combined they have 13 TD receptions and will be a big-time challenge for the Wildcat secondary.

As daunting as the passing game looks, what makes this offense even scarier is the rushing attack of the Cowboys.  HSU has the 15th best rushing attack in Divison III with 256.9 yards per game.  Junior Jaquan Hemphill is the guy for the Cowboys in the run game and Hemphill has delivered the mail to the tune of 111.0 yards per game, 14 rushing touchdowns, and running at a 7.4 yards per carry clip in 2017. Hemphill is a patient runner that will set up his blocking but then has the ability to open up the motor and break off large chunks at a time.

As much as I’ve talked up the Hardin-Simmons offense, the Cowboys defense has been outstanding in 2017. The HSU defense only allows 12.6 points per game in their 4-2-5 scheme and have piled up the damage in the backfield.  HSU is 26th in the country in team tackles for loss defense (average 8.2 TFL’s per game) and are also 22nd in the nation in sacks per game with 32 total QB putdowns for an average of 3.2 per game.

Leading the defense is a trio of veteran linebackers in Josh White (89.0 total tackles, 6 TFLs, and 7 pass breakups), Matthews Hawkins (72.0 total tackles, 9 TFLs), and Chris Miller (50.0 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 TFLs, and a pick). Defensive end, Jim LaFond, has been a nightmare in the backfield for the opposition in racking up 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.  What you noticed about this defense is they spread it around and it’s just not one guy doing all the damage. The Cowboys defense is very similar to Linfield’s in that they are disciplined and play outstanding team defense.  You have 16 different guys with a sack and 23 different guys with a tackle of loss. The Linfield offense is going to have a tall task in front of them as this is a diverse and athletic defensive group.

For Linfield, it’s all hands on deck.  Hardin-Simmons is about as good as they get in Division III so the margin of error is going to be slim for our Wildcats. Linfield is going to have to be outstanding on defense, rock solid on special teams, and be opportunistic on offense to have a shot at taking down a standout Cowboy football team. Let’s get to the keys!

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Have to limit the HSU rushing game: Yeah, it sounds stupid to say that Linfield needs to make Hardin-Simmons into a passing team when they have one of the most efficient and explosive passing attacks in the country but that’s what I’m saying.  If Linfield allows the Cowboys to be balanced and attack the ‘Cats on both the ground and through the air then it’s going to be a long football game for the Wildcats. If Linfield can somehow keep the ground yardage in check it could go to throttle down this high flying offense.

Keep the negative offensive plays to a minimum:  In watching this Wildcat offense for a good part of the season it seemed that Linfield’s scariest down was 1st down as Linfield had a tendency to go the opposite direction on first down and set up the defense with hard 2nd and 3rd and long situations. The Wildcat offense has to keep the HSU defensive line and linebackers out of their backfield and keep the offense moving forward to give the ‘Cats the best chance possible to move the chains on 3rd down.

Need to have a bid day on Special Teams: Linfield has to do it in all phase of special teams to keep this one within winning distance. Our coverage teams have to be ON THE MONEY this weekend and not allow big returns and short fields, our kickers need to do what they’ve done all year and be nails. Our big fellas up front have to hold the line of scrimmage and our block team has to continue to be rolling around in the head of every placekicker that runs out on the field. This unit needs to have a big day.

Protect the ball and win the turnover battle:  This is an area where so many playoff football games have been won or lost.  Going into Saturday, the ‘Cats are a +11 in the turnover ratio game and that’s solid. The Cowboys are sitting at a -1 in 2017, and while not bad, this is an area the ‘Cats have to come out ahead. We need our offensive players to make rock solid decisions with the ball and our defense have to take those calculated risks to pop a ball out at the right time.

Pressure: The Wildcats are going to need to get after Turner in the pocket. Turner does an outstanding job in standing tall in the pocket or buying himself time in moving around and avoiding pressure.  Linfield’s defensive line and linebackers have to make Turner feel the bodies around him and try to shake what appears to be a cool customer behind center.  While taking the running game has huge importance, being able to put Turner in the turf is of equal value on Saturday.

Take full advantage of any and every scoring opportunity: This is an excellent Cowboy defense the ‘Cats will be facing so Linfield is going to make hay when the opportunities present themselves. It will be critical for Linfield to convert any chance to score into the points.  I don’t know how many chances our offensive will get to punch one in on the Cowboys so Linfield better make the most of any shot.

Making plays on the football: The winner and loser of a college playoff football game against two good opponents can often be who makes more plays once the football is in the air. Any Wildcat fan has seen it from both sides. The team that can get up and make the great offensive or defensive play often times carries the day to victory.  HSU has lots of guys that can make plays on the football but so does our ‘Cats.


‘Cats by 3. I think I’ve talked up Hardin-Simmons up pretty good.  They deserve that praise but this Linfield football team is worthy.  This Linfield team has the heart and skill to beat any team in the Division III landscape. Will it be easy this Saturday afternoon in the ‘Catdome? Hell, no. But I know Linfield will be prepared and if the ‘Cats can execute for a full 60 minutes there isn’t a reason the ‘Cats cannot win and advance. Go ‘Cats!


DS said...

There is a team in the playoffs named IFOUNDIT?


Zach Fleming said...

Ryan well done again with insights on this weekends game. Hoping to see the Cats play if they make there way down south next round.