Friday, December 1, 2017

A great season comes to the end of the line in Belton, Texas.

Linfield knew that they were going to have to play a near-perfect game to knock off the defending national champions and current number one team in the country.  But the ‘Cats put themselves behind the eight ball early with a blocked punt deep in their own territory that resulted in a short touchdown for UMHB that made an uphill climb, even more, treacherous the rest of the way. The ‘Cats had a golden opportunity to make it a 10 point game midway through the 3rd quarter but when Linfield wasn’t able to cash in, it was ballgame on Linfield’s 2017 season.

As tough as it was to watch Linfield lose that game, you have to tip your cap to UMHB as that is the best defense I’ve seen in my 20 plus years in watching small college football.  Linfield has lost four games the past two years and all four are to UMHB.  Linfield owned the first four games against the Crusaders, and now, UMHB has turned the tables the last four times out. There is a ton of respect on both sides of the table as a Crusader starter reached out to me via twitter moments after the game with this message:

“I respect everything about yalls program. Y’all always play hard and with class. I love playing y’all and the challenge it is to prepare for y’all.
Much respect and safe travels”

The feeling is mutual young man. I do believe the UMHB has learned a lot in the previous playoff losses in 2014 and 15 to Linfield and they improved those “weak” areas that the ‘Cats had previously exploited to victories in those games. The result is a Crusader program that no longer plays suspect pass defense and a team that doesn’t implode when the spotlight is brightest. On the flipside, I hope that our ‘Cats and our program has learned some hard lessons the past two years on just what Linfield needs to do to get our program back to that extra gear that can take down a team as talented as UMHB.  Yeah, it’s going to be hard to find the speed they possess but I know that Coach Smith and his staff are not content in 2nd round playoff exits.

As for the 2017 overall, what a ride this team went on. Coming into the season, the ‘Cats knew they were going to be excellent at Linebacker and the defensive line, and had potential to be solid on the offensive line but after that, the roster was in the air.  There was talk about our defensive backfield being a weak link, nobody knew who was going to be our main running back, not sure which of the receivers would step up, and everyone wanted to talk about who was going to be the quarterback.  These questions were understandable after a truckload of talent the ‘Cats lost after the 2016 season.

Let’s look at it. Linfield lost one of their greatest quarterbacks of all time, one of the most dynamic running backs in program history with our outstanding other RB’s, we lost our top EIGHT receivers (where most of them were multiple years starters), long time punter, and lost their entire starting defensive backfield (who were all starters since their Sophomore seasons). After the 2016 season, the Linfield Wildcats lost a CRAP load of talent. Coaches around the Northwest Conference had to be licking their chops that this was going to “the year” where they were finally able to knock off Linfield from the NWC throne. It was an understandable though as Linfield might have appeared vulnerable for the first time in nearly a decade. However, the 2017 Linfield Wildcats had other plans in mind. First, let’s talk about this defense.

What an amazing season for the Wildcat defense.  The ‘Cats knew that in order for this team to have a shot to get back to another conference title and the playoffs, the defense was going to have to play top-shelf defense for the entire season and Linfield did just that in only allowing 12.1 points per game and only allowed a team to break the 20 point mark twice (24 points twice by UMHB).  While everyone knew the linebackers and defensive line play would be strong, it was the secondary and their excellent play that made this a complete defense. With five new starters and multiple other players breaking the rotation in the secondary, they instantly put any worries to rest in a tremendous performance against Chapman and just didn’t stop playing outstanding coverage defense during the entirety of the 2017 season.  Duke Mackle turned in a huge 2017 season from his safety position along with Nate Sample. The ‘Cats had four of the best cover corners in the conference between Andrew Schwieterman, Cory Stowell, Anthony Guttadauro, and Marquis Perrilliat. And busting onto the scene from the Rover position was Wade Ransom who turned in a 1st team All-NWC season after fighting injuries for most of his Linfield career. Wade’s size and speed made him both an enforcer in the secondary, he could rush the QB, or come up with huge interceptions in the secondary. What a great combination of players for the Wildcat defense in 2017.

But the tip of the spear of this defense was their linebacker and defensive line. This was about as dominant of an overall defensive front that Linfield has rolled out in a long time. The front seven had such a great combination of speed, size, intelligence, and playmaking ability that they made it incredibly difficult for a team to get any sustained offense going. You had Linebacker Jason Farlow who should have been named NWC Defensive Player of the Year by himself as Farlow put himself on a level of Forrest, Causey, Olsen, Bertsch, in terms of All-Time great Linfield Linebackers. Flanking Farlow was Jake Reimer who has been so tremendous throughout his career at linebacker and Mitchel Kekle with his playmaking ability. The three of these guys caused so many issues for offenses over the past three years that NWC offensive coordinators had to pop a bottle of champagne when they played their last snap.

When you combine with those three was a defensive line that could both rush the quarterback and stuff the run.  It started in the middle with the play of defensive tackle Zach Grate. Grate’s ability to eat up space in the middle and crush offensive linemen made our linebacker’s job so much easier over the past three seasons. Rolling next to Grate was DT Jake Handran who was rightfully honored as a 2nd team all-nwc defender and also playing vital minutes at DT were Havili Eteaki, Chris Stinchcomb, and Dakota Church. On the outside what can you say about Marcus McGovern? Gov had a great senior season in racking up 7.5 sacks and seemed to constantly in the backfield harassing quarterbacks. Asa Schwartz also had a huge impact at the other defensive end as well as Tony Kraus, Sam Fults, and freshman Ray Thomas.

It was near comical in how stifling Linfield was during NWC play as Linfield only allowed 8.6 points per game.  The dominance was so complete that the 1st and 2nd team All-Northwest Conference team could only muster up a single rushing TD and single passing TD against Linfield on the season.

Here is the breakdown of 1st and 2nd team players against this defense:

Ian Koste (Whit): 32 of 63, 267 yards passing, 0 TD’s, 3 interceptions, 3 sacks, 2 lost fumbles
Grant Schroder (GFU): 8 of 23, 69 yards passing, 1 TD, 1 interception, 3 sacks, 2 lost fumbles

Brand Boyd (Pac): 24 rushes, 69 yards, 1 TD
Mason Elms (Whit): 7 rushes, 39 yards, 0 TD’s

Kevin Thomas (Whit): 4 receptions: 46 yards, 0 TD’s
Kobe Williams (Pac): 4 receptions: 29 yards, 0 TD’s
Garrett McKay (Whit): 7 receptions: 69 yards, 0 TD’s
Dustin Harrison (UPS): 2 receptions: 10 yards, 0 TD’s
Brad Lander (GFU): 1 reception, 3 yards, 0 TD’s
Nick Kiroukas (Whit): 3 receptions: 25 yards, 0 TD’s
Michael McKeown (Whit): 6 receptions, 79 yards, 0 TD’s

DJ Winters (PLU): 5 receptions, 89 yards, 0 TD’s

Not one single running back or receiver broke the 100-yard mark against the Wildcats in 2017 and had a 4-1 interception to TD throw ratio against what the NWC coaches deemed as the top two QB’s in the conference. That is some nasty defense right there.

And that defense was needed badly as the Wildcat offense took a long journey in 2017 before finding their footing and setting up what could be an excellent run for the upcoming seasons.
But let’s rewind back to the start of the season. As we covered above, Linfield’s offense went into the season with a lot of new faces but you could see some budding potential in the 27-12 victory over Chapman where Linfield rushed for over 200 total yards led by Freshman Dawson Ruhl’s and newcomers in QB Aiden Wilder and running back Chidubem Nnoli. Combining with those legs was the arm of QB Troy Fowler who threw for 159 yards and two touchdowns to JD Lasswell.  The Junior receiver would explode on the scene as a big play threat for the ‘Cats in the 2017 season as well as speedster Tyler Torgerson.

While it wasn’t a gangbuster season opener offensively, it gave the Wildcat faithful that the ‘Cats had something cooking on offense.  Unfortunately, that halted pretty quickly the next week when UMHB came to the ‘Catdome and put a lock on the ‘Cats defense in only allowing 3 points and a measly 141 total yards of offense.  Again, most of that is to the credit of the Crusaders and their brilliant defense who had and continued to steamroll over every offense they encountered. Thankfully, nobody in the ‘Catdome hit the panic button on the offense and that faith was rewarded with a solid offensive output against Whitworth (379 total yards) and then a season high-water mark for points against Willamette (55) that saw Chidubem Nnoli burst on the scene with 197 rushing yards and 3 TD’s.

At this point of the year, the offense seemed to be really growing with Fowler developing chemistry with Lasswell and Torgerson on the deep ball and the emergence of Nnoli on the ground. However, that is when the offense started to look different as the starting offensive line started accumulating some significant injuries and Linfield would lose quarterback Troy Fowler for a significant portion of the remainder of the season.

With the combination of the offensive line getting shuffled almost weekly and the balance of the offense suffering from not as dynamic of a passing attack, the overall output of the Linfield offense suffered as a result over the middle portion of the season in hard-fought victories over George Fox and the overtime thriller at Pacific Lutheran. However, with the improved health of the offensive line, the development of freshman receiver Kyle Kimball, who stepped up after a season-ending injury to Tyler Torgerson, and the insertion of freshman quarterback, Wyatt Smith, the offense started to develop a rhythm late in the year between the passing attack and Nnoli’s explosiveness at running back. This sudden growth peaked in the first round of the playoffs against Hardin-Simmons as the offense was brilliant for significant stretches in piling up 414 total offensive yards against one of the better defenses in the country. Linfield had found that balance in the rushing attack and being able to attack defenses on multiple levels in the passing game as the offensive line (Ryne Furhmark, Will Heck, Gabe Mojarro, Aaron Kokubun, and Dakota Smith) played brilliantly. While it took most of the season to get here, the Wildcat offense has set themselves up to be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming seasons.

I can’t do a season review without giving some tremendous praise to our kicking duo of freshman punter Colton Ramos and placekicker Willy Warne. Both of these guys were critical to the success of the 2017 Wildcats and it’s astounding for multiple reasons. First, Ramos being a freshman was unphased in the responsibility that was thrust on his shoulders in being a huge cog in the ‘Cats field position game. Ramos came up big so many times on the year in a huge field flip or pinning an offense deep. He was tremendous but I can’t say enough about how impressive Willy Warne was in 2017. To be honest, I thought Willy had the yips after the 2016 season and was done as the placekicker for Linfield football. He had such an up and down season and had a miserable playoff game against HSU that I wasn’t counting on him very much coming into 2017. I have to apologize to Willy for every doubting him as he was Mr. Clutch for the ‘Cats in 2017.  Warne kicked the 2nd most field goals in program history in a single season (16) and was perfect on PAT on the year (30 for 30). Willy had three FG’s of over 40 yards and came through with critical after critical kick.  It’s a tribute to Willy to break the chains of a rough season and kick at an All-American season and play such a vital role in the success of a Linfield football season.

Overall, what a tremendous and successful season put together by these Wildcats. This group had so much going against them at the start of the season and they faced huge amounts of adversity during the year as well, but they never flinched, and always embraced the task at hand. I am so proud of what this team accomplished and the fact they earned their way back into the NCAA playoffs with another conference title, smacked a top ten team in the mouth and had the chance to once against stand toe-to-toe against the best team in Division III. It was once again, a great year to be a Linfield Wildcat.


DS said...

Great year to be a Linfield Wildcat.

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