Monday, September 10, 2018

‘Cats let the Saints slip away in Helena.

Senior Linebacker Patrick Pipitone was named NWC Defensive Player of the Week
This past Saturday was a tough one for the ‘Cats.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it, or try to spin it, I’ll call it like I saw it. The outcome out in Helena was a terrible loss for Linfield.  Probably the worst loss since the 2014 Willamette game.  Yeah, there were a few factors that slid the hurdles up a little higher for Linfield to clear going into this contest, but the ‘Cats were well aware of these when they signed up for this game.  The program knew it was going to be a long two day bus ride to get the Helena, the program knew that Carroll would have more time to get their stuff together having two games under their belt. We could go on and on, but at the end of the day, our ‘Cats should have handled Carroll on Saturday and flat out didn’t.  I think everyone was disappointed in the end result.

With that said, there is a huge amount of talent on this roster.  You saw that with Nnoli showing flashes of his 2017 form, Ruhl being outrageously good out of the backfield, Mackle coming up with picks and laying the hammer, the ‘Cats defensive front having periods of complete control at the line of scrimmage, etc, etc.  However, the ‘Cats just couldn’t get into a sustained positive flow where strong play from one side of the ball would transition into the other.  It was an up and down game from both the offense and defense and ‘Cats couldn’t take control. It was frustrating because it’s obvious this roster is capable of much more.

This loss isn’t a death sentence for the 2018 season. The ‘Cats need to turn it around and improve in a number of areas if Linfield wants to be in the NWC title hunt and beyond.  You noticed that I didn’t write “be in the NCAA D3 title hunt” in that last sentence?  Yeah, that was on purpose.  That is how poorly I felt our guys executed against the Saints. Again, I’m not trying to be harsh but real. If the Carroll trend continues, it’s going to be a short season. 

However, if the ‘Cats can quickly improve, do their jobs, win those keys individual battles, and execute there is no reason this team can’t be a major player out in the far west and make a huge playoff run.  The potential is there for this to be a standout football team but it’s 100% up to the players on the roster to turn potential into performance.  I know our guys are going to get it done and we should see a much crisper brand of Linfield football this Saturday.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

Not giving up the fight:  To me, this was a huge take away and what gives me the most confidence that the players and staff will right the ship and get this roster moving in the right direction.  When the ‘Cats went down 14-0 in that 3rd quarter, it sort of felt like 35-0 with how flat the offense looked for the majority of the game.  But the ‘Cats didn’t shrink from the pressure and keep plugging away and eventually started to show some moments of what could be possible for this program.  The will and flight was strong and that is something to build on.

Defensive line play:  The two rush touchdowns allowed were not great, but overall, I think that Linfield has a chance to be an incredibly disruptive front. Multiple players showed flashes of ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage (Stinchcomb, Eteaki, Gomez) with newcomer Travis Swanson made a big impact in his first time suiting up for the ‘Cats. I think the NWC is going to have a hard time with this group in 2018.

Pip: Linfield senior Linebacker, Patrick Pipitone played freaking great for his first career start.  Pip has obviously put in the time and effort to be the guy at Linebacker and it showed with 10 total tackles, 1.5 for loss, and a huge interception on a QB hurry/deflection.

Pass Pro: I thought the pass protection on the whole was strong for the Linfield offense. The ‘Cats chucked it up 54 times on the day and while the Saints were credited with 3 sacks, there was only one real time that the Saints rush immediately got to Smith.

Punting: Flipping the field is going to be a strength for this team all year long and Linfield did a great job of this especially in the 2nd half.

The Bad

Coming up empty early in the Red Zone: As I mentioned above, the ‘Cats left 10 points on the field in that first half and who knows where the game might have gone if Linfield could have capitalized. The ‘Cats have to be killers in this area of the field.

Passing attack rhythm: The Linfield passing could be VERY good but on Saturday it wasn’t the case as the ‘Cats threw for under 50% on the day and just seemed off.  In order for the ‘Cats to get where they need to be, this is a key area that Linfield has to have improvement on in the upcoming week.

Giving up 21 to that Carroll offense: Linfield mostly held Carroll in check but that was a bad offense.  Even if Linfield scored 45 points, giving up 21 to that offense isn’t a great look.  However, most of the game, the Linfield defense dominated the Saints but had three bad series where we allowed Carroll to convert long 3rd downs and then the blown coverage at the end of the game.  If the ‘Cats could have cleaned some of that up, they really could have blanked that Saints offense.

The penalties: There’s no play-by-play in the stats so it’s hard to go back and look at an exact number but Linfield had multiple promising offensive series get stalled with one ill-timed penalty after the next. It killed offense and created way too many 3rd and long situations.

The Ugly

The Final Sequence: That was tough.  The ‘Cats had all the momentum and looked like they were in prime position to either end it in regulation or take the game to overtime and the underthrown deep ball that was picked and the defense turned around and had a miscommunication in the backfield that led to Carroll sticking the dagger in the heart of the ‘Cats. That was just a tough way to end a game that was in total control by Linfield. Hope it was a valuable lesson learned and the team can use it as a launching pad to great things!  Go ‘Cats!

Friday, September 7, 2018

2018 Linfield College Football Season Preview

What a way to kick off the 2018 season!
It’s that time of the year again!  Yes, the air is a little bit cooler in the morning, students are back on campus again, and college football is once again blessing us all.  And that also means college football’s most consistently winning football program is kicking the tires and lighting the fires.  Yes, Linfield football is back and ready to start the 2018 football season with their typical high expectations, some questions marks, and a boat load of talent ready to step into the arena.

In order for us to start exploring the 2018 Wildcats, we need to go back to the end of the 2017 season and see how Linfield got to where they’re at now.  Linfield once again finished their season losing in the second round of the NCAA playoff at UMHB.  The Cru’ would go on to another Stagg Bowl appearance and the ‘Cats were sent back to the drawing board.  However, in so many ways, 2017 was a bumpy ride that eventually turned out to be a hell of a year for the ‘Cats.

2017 was a season told in three different chapters.  Those chapters were driven by the up and down nature of the offense.  The defense for the 2017 Linfield Wildcats was LIGHTS OUT good.  It was a veteran and talent laden defense that was good on all three levels.  You knew each week, you were going to have a shot to win because of that defense and the outstanding year Linfield had kicking and punting the ball. The offense was a different story. At the beginning of 2017, the ‘Cats showed some inconsistency but started to develop a personality as a big play offense especially during that Willamette/Whitworth stretch.

Then due to some key injuries up front and in the skill areas, the Linfield offense had to ready grind away to find points and it wasn’t pleasant. The ‘Cats had to survive and win some fights in a phone booth to keep control of the NWC title chase.

It was during this time that a few critical items fell into place.  At halftime of the PLU overtime game, the Linfield offense was once again scuffling so the coaching staff inserted true Freshman QB Wyatt Smith into the lineup.  Wyatt taking snaps didn’t instantly turn the offensive into a juggernaut but the complexion of the attack changed.  As Smith took more snaps the offensive group started to solidify and it was during that second half against Puget Sound that the offense started to click.  The offensive line was finally getting healthy and Smith’s arm acted as a great counter to Chidubem Nnoli’s legs. By the time Linfield rolled into Pacific, you were looking at a complete football team.
Boom!  The ‘Cats dusted Pacific, and dare I say, easily handled a very talented Hardin-Simmons football team in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs. Linfield was a dangerous football team but once again ran into the brick wall of UMHB. Even with the loss, I was so proud of this team, the players, and the coaches that answer the bell to a number of gut checks in 2017.

So now that we’ve talked about the past, let’s turn our attention to the future with the start of the 2018 season.

I’m sure you’ve already read plenty on the ‘Cats so far and I’m not covering any new ground.  This is a role reversal from the 2017 season, where the offense is the established group, while the defense is going to be featuring a number faces in starting roles.

Obviously Smith is back for his sophomore campaign and he’s the type of player that’s going to get better and better as his career progresses.  Wyatt is a bright guy with a great arm.  He’s not the runner we had with Sam Riddle but Wyatt is far from a statue in the pocket.  Smith will be able to extend plays and move the chains with his legs as well.  He’s be a great field general for this offense.

Setting up shop in the backfield with Smith will be returning All-Region running back Chidubem Nnoli.  The now Junior was out-freaking-standing in his debut year for the ‘Cats. Chidubem has track speed, vision, great feet and wiggle, the guys is a gamebreaker and will be a huge factor for this offense once again in 2018.  However, Nnoli is far from the only weapon Linfield has at running back.  Dawson Ruhl is back for his sophomore season and turned in some great moments from his freshman season with his ability to make guys miss and flashed some tremendous hands out of the backfield that rival most receivers in the region.  We don’t stop there as Sophomores Artie Johnson and Tanner Earhart are now healthy and ready to roll. Both Johnson and Earhart are dudes that could wind up being major contributors to this offensive unit. Honestly, I haven’t seen this much talent at the running back positons at Linfield since the 2000-2003 run with Haberberger, Russel, Williams, and Ford being the core group of ‘Cat backs (all four of those guys are in the top 10 of Linfield career total rushing yards).

On the outside and in the slots, the ‘Cats have six players that will be in the mix in the passing attack. J.D. Lasswell is obviously the man out of that group after coming off his breakout 2017 season.  Tyler Torgerson is back from his knee injury from 2017 and will offer a great outside counter to Lasswell. I think a guy Linfield fans are going to see often is Khory Day, as he is young guy dripping with talent. Slot wise, Keegan Weiss is just filthy.  This guy is going to make so many plays out of nowhere for Linfield this year. To me, he’s like a Brad McKechnie (2002-05).  Not the “star” but if you don’t account for Weiss, he’s going to burn you multiple times a game.  Aiden Wilder has looked very good in the slot in camp after shifting from QB.  I’m really fond of Aiden as a player and person know that he’s going to make himself known this season.  A newcomer to the program is Max Novak who transferred in during the spring. Max is surgical in his rout running and will be a player in this offense.

(Holy crap, I’m 1,200 words in and I haven’t even finished the offense.)

Let’s talk beef. Linfield is going to feature an all-senior offensive line to kick off the 2018 season and I’m excited for this group.  Leading the ‘Cats up front is preseason All-American Dakota Smith at Left Tackle. Smith has looked tremendous in camp and should have an outstanding 2018.  I feel that Gabe Mojarro performance at Center is going to be critical to the success of the Wildcat offense.  Mojarro is a 1st team all-conference talent, and if Gabe can stay healthy, he should be a force in the middle. Returning starting guard Aaron Kokubun is back this season and I’m expecting the big man to have a big year. I’m thrilled for these next two guys as Cody Mitchell and Duncan Mattson will get the starting nods at the other guard and tackle spots.  This is an experienced and talented group of guys and below them is a huge crop of young offensive line talent. I mean the Wildcat staff brought in a group of young studs that will get in the rotation soon and add to this group’s depth.

Two outstanding tight ends in Junior Jacob Calo and Senior Sione Atuekao will round out the offense. Both of these guys can make plays in the passing game but are also both physical players that like mixing it up.

Flipping over to the other side of the ball is a talented but untested group on the defensive line. The ‘Cats lost some fine defensive linemen in Zach Grate and Markus McGovern. Both of these guys will be missed but I think the guys coming back are going to surprise people, and in a good way with their play. Chris Stinchcomb will the anchor up front at the DT position and is primed for an excellent senior campaign.  Joining Stinch is Havili Eteaki who is a playmaker at DT. I’m looking forward to the return of Sam Gomez at DT. Sam started a number of games in 2015 as a freshman, but left the program soon after. However, Sam is back with ‘Cats and will be a difference maker for this defense with his explosiveness.  Out on the ends, Sam Fults and Tony Kraus are both going to be physical bangers that can get after the quarterback.  Also keep an eye on Occidental transfer Travis Swanson out at defensive end as well. The 6’3” Idaho native is long and can close on the QB in a hurry. He could be a guy that makes waves as the season progresses.

Defensive Back wise…man I’m loving this group.  Anthony Guttadauro and Marquis Perrilliat are both proven talents for the ‘Cats and will get their time to shine as fulltime starters at corner.  Adding to that mix is a guy the program was thrilled to pick up in Western Oregon transfer Chris Adamo at corner. Adamo is a player and I have no doubt the Wildcat fanbase is going to get to know his name and number quickly.  Returning back at safety for Linfield Duke Mackle.  I’m calling my shot right now and will say that Duke is going to be an All-American at the end of this season.  IMO, Duke was shorted honors last season by the regional voters.  Mackle came up huge for Linfield time after time in 2017 and it wasn’t a fluke. I’ll be keeping my eye on the Monster spot this year as Tyler Bergeron is back at Linfield after a 6 year absence. Bergeron enlisted in the Marine Corps after the 2012 season and proudly served his country.  But Tyler always wanted to come back and was greeted with open arms.  The defensive staff had high hopes for Tyler in 2012 and that is still the same in 2018.  Over at Rover, you’re going to see both Steven Kwak and Peter Finley in the mix.  Finley can bring the hammer on guys and I love Kwak’s steadiness in the backfield. Steven is an extension of the coaching staff on the field and should pay dividends for the defense this season.

Linebacker is where the ‘Cats have the biggest question marks going into this season. Linfield lost three players from 2017 that were essentially starters since 2015 with Jason Farlow being a 1st Team All-American last year.  Leading the new charge will be Senior Linebacker Patrick Pipitone who that staff has been thrilled about this past spring and fall camp.  Pip will be the quarterback of this defense and should be a major contributor to this team. Sophomore Brock Klosterman has a huge upside and could develop into a dominant player for the Wildcat defense as Brock has all the tools. Junior Taulelei Toledo has stepped up his game and should be the 3rd backer that sees a lot of action for the ‘Cats to start the year.

The Special Team do look to be special for the ‘Cats this season. Back is All-American kicker Willy Warne who looks like he hasn’t missed a beat this past fall camp and punter Colton Ramos will build unto what was an impressive freshman campaign.  Linfield has had All-American punters and kickers in the past but I cannot think of a better kicker/punter combination on the same team in the 20+ years I’ve been around the program.  They are that good.

So with all of that said, what does that potentially mean for the 2018 season?  I don’t have a crystal ball and the season can be unpredictable.  At the top end, if a few key areas can come together, I think this Linfield team could be a serious threat for a deep playoff run.  The talent on the roster is all there. At the worst, the ‘Cats could be a dogfight for the NWC title and their playoff lives. The upside is there for this team and now it’s a matter of getting after it.

I’m not going to get into a game preview this time around and that’s mainly because I haven’t been able to spend a minute watching or researching Carroll.  That’s not a knock on Carroll but more of a statement of where I’m currently at. I do know that the Saints have an incredible pedigree, they have tremendous size and skill, and have two games under their belt to make roster adjustments.  The ‘Cats better bring it tomorrow or they’re going to be sitting at 0-1 and with a dangerous Redlands team coming to the ‘Catdome on what will be a shortened week of preparation (I’m not overselling it, I think Redlands is good). Let’s go ‘Cats!

So on a more personal note.  There have been some people reaching out asking when the game preview is going to come out, etc.  Full disclosure, I have been and will continue to scale back on the writing of the blog.  Life is busy right now and the blog has had to take a major backseat.  And that’s a good thing for my family!  That doesn’t mean my passion for Linfield football has diminished but I have to take care of business.  The mini-highlights will still be delivered weekly and I’m going to try to get a game review/game preview out but don’t be disappointed that is not as consistent as years’ past. Thank you to all of you that have and will continue to support this venture!