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:

QB’s:
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

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

WR’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

TE:
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.

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.

Overall

‘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!

Monday, November 20, 2017

‘Cats win!!! Linfield hogties Hardin-Simmons in 27-13 playoff victory in the ‘Catdome.

The Linfield defense swallowed up the Cowboys from start to finish in the 'Cats victory.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Photos here.
We all know the story of this Wildcat season up to this game. Linfield was a team that went a large portion of the season with struggles on offense in dealing with injuries, and lineup changes, but the ‘Cats leaned on their standout defense and the leg of Willy Warne. Linfield kept finding their way to win after win.  It wasn’t pretty and darn right close to having the season go off the rails a few times but this group kept believing and kept banging away.

Then, the offensive line starts to get healthy, Wyatt Smith was inserted into the lineup at quarterback, and a passing game starts to develop to help to provide the space that our standout running back Chidubem Nnoli needed to loosen up those packed defensive fronts. In the second half of the UPS game something started to click. It wasn’t perfect but it was the base to build on, and then another step forward in the Pacific game, and then…BAM! The talent on this roster finally meshed and performed to their ability this past Saturday in a slapping of one of the best teams in the country in Hardin-Simmons.

I’m not overselling HSU either. They had the offensive player of the year in running back JaQuan Hemphill, Special teams player of the year in Reese Childress (he’s good), 3 offensive lineman on the first team offense, 5 defenders with all-ASC honors, all the yards and points the Cowboys put up and a defense that only gives up 12 points a game.  This was an excellent opponent and Linfield chewed them up and spit them out.

Defensively, the ‘Cats did what they’ve done all year but doing it to a team with the pedigree of HSU was impressive. Making it even more impressive is that Linfield did it without starting corners Cory Stowell and Andrew Schweiterman (both injuries) and then lost All-American lock, and should be in heavy contention for West Region Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Jason Farlow early in the first quarter. Losing one of those guys is a blow but losing all three made you wonder how it would play out. The defensive staff didn’t flinch in putting their faith in corners Marquis Perriliat and Anthony Guttadauro and inserting Linebacker Patrick Pipitone in for the lost Farlow.  Perriliat was the first to make an impact with that tone setting interception from the 3rd play of the game. After that, it was a Guantanamo Bay style lockdown by the Wildcat defense.  I can throw out all the stats out at you but it wouldn’t do the justice in how the Wildcat defensive systematically took Hardin-Simmons apart on offense.
Speaking of offense, Linfield’s offense had an excellent day in the office in executing their game plan. Linfield only went three and out once on the day and used a balanced attack of run and pass to keep the chains moving and Hardin-Simmons off balance. What I loved the most was the play of the ‘Cats offensive line which hasn’t been on the receiving end of much love this year. This group is finally healthy and have been jelling over the past three weeks and they owned the Cowboys upfront. The O-Line was setting the corner for Nnoli and giving Smith the time he need to make great decision after great decision. The ‘Cats ability to sustain drives, eat up clock, and put points up on the board were a killer when match with the Wildcat defense.
What we all saw on Saturday was the culmination of a group of players that kept the faith that if they stuck to the coaching staff’s overall vision of what this team could be, this Linfield team could be as dangerous as anyone in the country.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

Defensive Domination: That was a Texas sized butt whipping by the Wildcat defense.  In my preview, I wrote nearly 800 words alone on how great this Hardin-Simmons offense is and the Linfield defense printed up my preview and wiped their noses with it.  HSU was the 4th best offense in the country coming into this game and Linfield made them look like George Fox’s offense. The ‘Cats deleted the Cowboys rushing attack and took away the ASC offensive player of the year in running back in Jaquan Hemphill (12 carries for 30 yards) and nearly match quarterback Landy Turner’s season interception total (5) in a single game with 3 picks. This was a talented offensive unit and the Wildcat defense had them at under 100 yards headed into the 4th quarter. People around division 3 knows this Wildcat defense is legit but I think Saturday opened up some eyes.

Balanced offensive attack: Tremendous offensive production against an outstanding defense as Linfield totaled 414 yards on 70 plays for an average of 5.9 yards.  The ‘Cats split up that total yardage with going for 188 on the ground and 226 yards passing. Linfield went heavier on the rushing attempts as the staff saw something there and used an incredibly efficient passing attack to keep the defense loose and kept the chains moving or in popping a big gainer.  I thought the offensive game plan was excellent and that balance kept HSU guessing on the day as Linfield dominated the football with a 36 minute to 23 minute advantage in time of possession.

Offensive Line had a day:  Linfield’s offensive line played a hell of a game on Saturday. This group has been so beaten up and had to reshuffle the deck during this 2017 season and it showed for a long period of time.  The original starting five of the 2017 season finally all were able to get back on the field against Puget Sound and since then they’ve started to jell and continue to get healthy. Their performance on Saturday was going to be a huge factor in the outcome of the game and these guys answered the bell. The Linfield offensive line and tight ends dominated up front in both the run and pass game. You give Nnoli the edge and Smith time to sit and process and you’re going to get good results. The Wildcat offensive line gave the team both of those against HSU and was critical to the victory.

Chidubem Nnoli carrying the load: What can you say about Chidubem Nnoli?  Nnoli just cracked the top ten of Linfield’s career single-season rushing leaders with a now 1,045 rushing yards in 2017.  The sophomore added 153 of those rushing yards to the total this past Saturday against the Cowboys off of 33 carriers. With the push the offensive line was getting up front and Nnoli’s blend of vision, balance, power, and speed it was a beautiful thing to watch. The coaching staff has a lot of trust in Chidubem and Nnoli keeps rewarding that trust with one great performance after the next.
Pass Rush Pressure: Hardin-Simmons offensive line is an outstanding pass pro football team. Their guys are big, physical, athletic, and well coached. They presented a big challenge for the ‘Cats defense front and Linfield rose to the challenge. While Linfield did technically only combine for 2 sacks on the day, they were constantly moving HSU QB Landry Turner off his mark and making the quarterback incredibly uncomfortable in the pocket.  Senior Defensive End Marcus McGovern stood out and seemed to be perpetually chasing Turner in the backfield as McGovern continues his standout Senior season.

Efficient Passing Attack:  Wyatt Smith and the Linfield receivers were freaking great on Saturday.  Smith passed for 226 yards and a TD on 17 of 24 passing and completed passes to six different receivers.  JD Lasswell continued his trend in making explosive plays for Linfield. Both Drew Accimus and Keegan Weiss had big plays and the staff continues to be creative in using their running backs in the passing attack. I loved that Smith changes speeds on the ball for what’s appropriate. If he needs to zip it in he can snap the ball, but it the pass calls for some touch to find the window, Wyatt has a knack to glide it in. On top of that, Smith made great decisions with the ball all game long.

Winning the Turnover Battle: In the game preview, we discussed how Linfield came into the game as a +11 on the year and Hardin-Simmons has a -1. Those numbers are now updated to Linfield being a +14 and HSU finishing the year as a -4. Trends at this point of the season can tell you just who you are and Linfield’s ability to take the ball away from opposition burned HSU to the tune of 4 turnovers to 1. All four takeaways for Linfield were huge as the first by Marquis Perrilliat set the tone for the day, a forced fumble snuffed out one 4th quarter drive and a Wade Ransom pick ended the game and stopped Hardin-Simmons last gasp.  However, the Duke Mackle pick six was the backbreaker and a thing of beauty. (Sidenote: How in the blue blazes was Duke only a 2nd team all-NWC safety? Straight garbage on that decision.)
3rd Down Defense: We’ve already covered how masterful the Wildcat defense was on Saturday and Linfield’s performance on 3rd down was critical in the flow of this game. The ‘Cats held Hardin-Simmons to only 4 of 13 on 3rd down on the day with two of those conversions with the game in hand in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys’ offense had few answers for Linfield and that played out during this critical down time and again.

The Bad

Special Teams:  Our special teams unit did not have a day to remember against Hardin-Simmons as the ‘Cats kickoff team as an adventure (again), we had a bad turnover on a punt return where one of our guys had the ball hit them while they were blocking a Cowboy gunner, muffed an onside recovery that kept HSU alive a little longer, and then the punt return for touchdown in the 4th quarter. A lot of food for thought for the staff as Linfield will face an even greater special teams challenge next week at UMHB.

Penalties: A LOT different this week than against Pacific as Linfield were able to get rid of the garbage penalties (i.e. bad personal fouls) but Linfield still piled up 10 flags for 70 yards on the day in what seemed like a number of minor infractions that caused the ‘Cats to stub their toes. Some of this is the byproduct of the aggressive nature of this program, so I can be live with walking the edge, just not the dumb look at me/fake tough guy stuff. Good to see Linfield clean that up this week.

The Ugly

Hardin-Simmons signal blocking towel:  It was back! Last year the ‘Cats defense was savaging the Cowboys high flying offense (sound familiar) and the only answer the Cowboys coaching staff had was to create a towel wall because Linfield staff’s *had* to be picking their signals. I mean, there is no other reason why Linfield was absolutely stuffing their offense. Right? Well, instead of two wimpy sized purple towels, the HSU staff went with one large white one.  The Cowboys offensive staff should have put that towel to better use and tossed it in at the officials halfway through that first half when it because obvious that Linfield’s defense was too much for the Cowboys to handle. In fact, when I saw them break out that big towel it showed that Linfield was in Cowboys staff’s heads before the game even started.

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.

Overall

‘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!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

2017 Linfield College Football: Pacific Mini-Highlight

‘Cats Win!!! Linfield knock out Boxers in 35-7 victory in Forest Grove.

Winners!!!

That was satisfying. After weeks of enjoying but gaining a few new gray hairs the Wildcats started to put the whole dang thing together in what was a dominating 35-7 victory over the Pacific Boxers.

I didn’t want to bring this up in the game preview but since Pacific rebooted their program, Linfield hasn’t exactly burned it up on the road against the Boxers.  If you do look at just the final outcomes, it looks like the 2011 and 2016 games were comfortable wins but they were not crisp games as the ‘Cats had some struggles to put Pacific away quickly in those contests and we all know that Linfield had to fight off the Boxers in 2013 in a tight battle.  However, this past Saturday was a slap-down from the opening kickoff to the end of the game. It was a vintage Linfield football game where the ‘Cats use a quick strike offense to surge ahead and the defense bludgeons the opposition into submission.

It was fun to watch the confidence of the team grow after having it shaken, but not broken, in weeks prior. As I wrote about last week, you could see the offensive unit take a step forward last week in the second half against Puget Sound and the ‘Cats carried that momentum over into this past Saturday as they moved the ball quickly and effectively against Pacific.   Pass pro was mostly solid on the day, receivers were mixing it up in the run game with their blocking, Nnoli was making guys miss or bowling them over into the end zone, and our receivers were making plays on the football.  It does make me wish the offense had one more game to continue that upward swing before the playoffs but I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. The sudden productivity of the offensive unit is a welcome and exciting development to counter what is an outstanding Linfield defense.

Speaking of the defense, what can you say about this group? They have been so freaking good from the opening game down in California, to standing toe-to-toe with UMHB, and then to locking up the Northwest Conference offenses and throwing away the key. In seven conference games this Linfield defense only allowed 8.6 points per game, 66 yards of rushing per game, 151.6 yards passing allowed per game, 12 picks, 11 fumble recoveries, 26 sacks, and only allowed 1 rushing TD. This Linfield defense out prepared, out skilled, out quicked, and out toughed everyone in the Pacific Northwest in 2017 and Pacific was just the latest victim.

The Boxers were only able to put together 147 total yards of offense, which is better that Puget Sound last week so at least they had going on for them.  Really, it wasn’t a case of the Boxers being bad on offense but what Linfield’s defense did to them was what the ‘Cats have done to NWC offenses all season long and that’s bury ‘em.


With that said, everyone got the news of the playoffs and what the road for the ‘Cats will look like.  If you’re surprised that the ‘Cats are playing Hardin-Simmons again then I want to talk to you about a real estate opportunity I have in Parkland. This is not shocking and I’m actually thrilled to be hosting a home playoff game in 2017.  The Cowboys are a GREAT football program and will give Linfield all the ‘Cats can handle and more.  We’ll have plenty to talk about on Thursday but for now let’s get to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly from an excellent win over the Boxers.

The Good

A balanced offense: Linfield’s offense looked good. Really good. If it was for the two red zone turnovers in the first half, the ‘Cats offense might have been able to punch in 5 touchdowns in the first 6 possessions but ultimately has to settled on those 3 first half TD strikes.  The Offense found that balance they’ve been craving all year long with 151 yards rushing and 219 passing yards that equaled out to Linfield hitting a 6.3 yards per play average.  The offensive line seems healthier and guys are feeling more comfortable and growing into their roles on that side of the football. The growth couldn’t have come at a better time.


Generating Pressure: Linfield defensive line’s play was game altering as they never allowed the Boxers to get comfortable in the passing department.  Linfield stacked up 5 sacks and the constant pressure was heavy on the Pacific coaching staff’s mind.  The Pacific offense was so worried about Linfield’s heat that their passing game was a collection of check downs and screens for the big majority of the game and a huge reason why Pacific only went 11 of 28 for 71 yards throwing the ball.

Creating turnovers: The Linfield defense forced 4 turnover against the Boxers on Saturday, including 3 forced fumbles and recoveries.  Anthony Guttadauro came up with a big pick late in the first half to halt Pacific’s only offensive action in the half after a big punt return by the Boxers.  Then all three of these fumble recoveries were critical as Linfield turned each of them into touchdowns and allowed Linfield to put the game to bed early in the 3rd quarter. 

Development of the passing game:  Linfield quarterback Wyatt Smith continued to impress in his second start of his young career in going 10 of 14 for 188 yards and 3 TD strikes.  To me, his best and most eye opening throw wasn’t the touchdown throws but was a strike on 1st and 10 in the 3rd quarter from Pacific’s 22.  It was a play action pass where Smith dropped a dime over bracketed coverage to Kyle Kimball to set up a first and goal on the one. It was a big time throw and further proof that the passing game is going the right direction.

3rd down defense: The Wildcat defense was suffocating on the day in only allowing Pacific to go 2 of 15 on 3rd down conversions (13%).  The Wildcats forced six 3 and out possessions during the game and gave the Pacific punter a sore leg for making him kick it so much on Saturday. 

The Bad

The Penalties, man:  As much as I love this team and how hard they have grinded there is a part of this team that need to grow up and lean to walk away from those guys on the other team that have nothing else going on than to try to act tough and bait an altercation. Linfield had five personal fouls/unsportsmanlike penalties. FIVE. That just not what we do in this program. Walk away and let your play do all the talking. This team will be better off if/when we leave that garbage behind us.
Red Zone Turnovers: I don’t know I the pick on the first possession was a red zone turnover (looks like it wasn’t in the stat sheet) but it was close enough so I’m going to count it.  With that said, I’m not going to be too upset on that DB jumping that route and making that pick. It was a great read by that player.  As for the Nnoli fumble, well, Chidubem has been a warrior carrying the football this season, and in fact, that might have been his first fumble on the season (stat nerds correct me if I’m wrong).  So, I’m not going to get bent out of shape on these two turnovers but this game could have even been put out reach even earlier if we don’t give the ball back in those situations.

Letting Pacific score a rushing touchdown: I think the defense breathed new life in the Pacific touchdown drive with about 45 penalties. Not to take away too much from the Boxers on that drive as they converted a few times to keep that one alive but goodness the ‘Cats assisted on that one. I’m not even that upset that Pacific scored but the selfish reason why I hated to see a rushing TD is that was the FIRST RUSHING TD that the Wildcat defense allowed in NWC play this season. The ‘Cats defense came *this close* to not allowing a rushing TD against anyone in the NWC. There is no stat on that in the archives but I have to imagine that would have been a rare feat if the Wildcat defense would have accomplished that.

The Ugly

Nothing: What can be ugly about this football team wrapping up another undefeated NWC season, going 8-1 overall, being regarded as a top 10 team, and going back to the playoff? Well, nothing can. We’ll talk about this later but I’m so dang proud of this program for what they’ve accomplished so far in 2017 after all the departures off of last year’s team.  It wasn’t pretty for good chunks of the year but it has been a group of hard-nosed players that expect to win each Saturday they hit the field and I’m excited to see how far our ‘Cats can take it in the second season. Go ‘Cats!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

2017 Game 9 Preview: Linfield (7-1) at Pacific (4-3)

Wait, it's the end of the regular season already?
And off we go! Your Linfield Wildcats will wrap up the 2017 regular season a stone’s throw away from the ‘Catdome as Linfield will travel up to Forest Grove to face the Pacific Boxers. This should be a good football game between two programs that pride themselves on playing a physical brand of football.

The Pacific Boxers have had a bit of a strange 2017 season as the Boxers non-conference season was rocked with Pacific finding out the day they were supposed to board an airplane to Southern California that their September 16th game against the Occidental Tigers was called off by the hosts due to low roster numbers.  It was a bad situation for everyone involved as the players were robbed of over 10% of their season and a number of Pacific families were left hanging with airplane tickets and time off work with no game to go see. That has left the Boxers with an 8 game season which the Northwest Conference hasn’t seen since 2005, when Lewis & Clark canceled the remainder of their season due to low roster numbers right before the start of NWC play.

With that said, the 2017 Boxers play a competitive brand of football in which has seen Pacific lose three tight games on the year.  The Pacific victories have been tight as well until the Boxers were able to able to land a 28-point win over Willamette last weekend.  Regardless, Pacific is more than comfortable in getting in a phone booth with a team and slugging it out until a victor can be declared.

On offense, the Wildcat defense is going to see a team featuring the top rushing attack in the NWC in Pacific, as the Boxers average 211.3 rushing yards per game (4.9 yards per rush), and the top rusher in the conference in Senior Running Back Brandon Boyd.  Boyd has been the workhorse for the Boxers in averaging 138.6 rushing yards per game (6.7 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns on the season.

As much as the Boxers want to ground and pound the opposition, Pacific is capable of putting the ball in the air.  Leading the Pacific aerial attack is Junior quarterback JT Greenough.  The Tigard native is completing passes at a 59.1% rate and averaging 179.6 passing yards per game. Easily, the top target for the Boxers is the explosive Kobe Williams. The sophomore receiver has top-end speed and is not only a dynamic deep threat but is dangerous in Pacific's wide receiver screen game.

The Boxers will attack Linfield with throwing a ton of different formations at the Wildcat defense and have no issues in going four wide or bringing in extra offensive linemen and try to ram it down your throat.  It will not only be a physical challenge for this Linfield defense but also a schematic one as well.

Defensively, the Boxers are another 3-4 base defensive team that the ‘Cats will be facing.  The Boxers have been solid all year on defense in only allowing 23.0 points per game.  Pacific hasn’t been a one-man show on defense as the Boxers top three tacklers all represent all three levels of the Pacific Defense. The top tackler on the team is senior linebacker Ina Teofilo who has piled up 35 total tackles on the year, followed by sophomore safety Kolby Kikolaisen with 34 total tackles, and that’s followed by defensive line stand out, Xavier Harvey, who has stacked up 32 tackles on the year.  Harvey is also leading the team in tackles for loss (5.5) and sacks (4.5).

While the Boxers are allowing 180.7 rushing yard per game, where this defense has been outstanding on 3rd down.  Currently Pacific features the 7th best 3rd down defense in the entire country (Linfield is 23rd) in only allowing a 3rd down conversion rate of 25% on the season (Linfield’s outstanding defense gives up 3rd downs on 28% of the time). It’s a pretty interesting stat as the Boxer defense, while solid, doesn’t jump out in any other statistical category in the Division III rankings.  However, that is a pretty darn good area to be good at and one to give Linfield fans concern as the ‘Cats haven’t exactly been gangbusters on 3rd down with only having a 36.7% conversion rate. For fans watching this weekend, 3rd down will play a major role in the outcome of this game.

For the ‘Cats, this is another big weekend as while Linfield did clinch the NWC title last weekend there is still too much work for this Linfield team to do before even considering the second season. Linfield HAS to be fully invested at the task on hand because this Wildcat team isn’t even close to being a team that can roll out and be conservative in how they approach and attack a game like this and expect a positive outcome. Really, this Linfield team has to look at this game as a playoff game and keep building on the momentum of the season as the ‘Cats have played a superior brand of defensive football and saw a spark of a dynamic offensive attack that could develop for this program.

To me, the talent on this roster hasn’t played their best football yet. There have been so many injuries and line up shuffling on the offensive side of the ball that has stifled the development of this unit but people watching last weekend saw something happening in that second half.  Was that just a flash in the pan or was that second half against UPS the foundation of an explosive offensive attack? We’re going to find out in less than 48 hours against a team that would love nothing to do than derail the end of Linfield’s regular season.

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Focus on Saturday: That’s all that matters and Linfield have to realize that the Boxers are going to go down in this season swinging with everything they got.  The Boxers have nothing to lose and everything to gain in beating Linfield and riding into the recruiting season with a big old feather in their cap.  The last thing this program needs to do is worry about who or where the ‘Cats are going to be in the first round.  No, this Linfield football team and staff need to have all eyes on Saturday and let it all hang out in order to keep this football team moving in a upward trajectory.

Take away the Boxer Rushing Game:  Yeah, we’ve already talked about how good the Boxers rushing attack is this year. Boyd is a fantastic back that does a great job in setting up his blocking and making quick and decisive cuts on the line of scrimmage and has the breakaway speed to bust one wide open.  This is the best running back that Linfield has seen since week 2 of the season against Mary Hardin-Baylor. I’m not overselling it, Boyd is good and if Linfield can take him away it will go a long way towards a Linfield victory.

Limit negative offensive plays: Negative offense plays (Tackles for loss, penalties, sacks) have been a killer for this 2017 Linfield Wildcat team. Linfield’s offensive line has to be outstanding with their communication and execution of blocking schemes and then has to win the one-on-one battles in front of them.  Keeping negative plays down to a minimum would be a huge positive for this offensive unit.

Win the turnover battle: Linfield is coming into this game as a team with a +7 turnover ratio (that means the opposition has turned it over 7 more times than Linfield has during the season) while the Boxers are a -5.  Pacific hasn’t been terrible in giving the ball away but their defense has only caused 7 total turnovers on the season.  Keeping this trend going could play a major factor in a Linfield victory.

Find an offensive balance: For most the season, Linfield has been a rush first football team but last week the ‘Cats were finally able to break loose in the passing attack for over 300 yards but had zero rush game to speak of. Pacific traditionally, and still does, a good job in their defensive passing schemes so the ‘Cats offense needs to find that balance. I’m telling you, that if Linfield can find a balanced offensive attack, this can be an explosive offensive football team.

Out special Pacific on Special Teams: We’ve needed this unit all season long and this weekend is no different. The ‘Cats have to be able to flip fields and be great in their coverage teams against the Boxers.  Every game it seems like this group comes through with some standout plays and Linfield will need more of the same in order to move on with the victory.

Put the pressure on: We’ve talked a ton about the Boxer rushing attack but Pacific is capable of throwing the football.  In passing situations, the Linfield front four has to get after JT Greenough, who is not a mobile quarterback.  If Linfield allows Greenough to stand up tall and deliver, he’s going to make Linfield pay.  The ‘Cats have to get guys on him in a hurry and move him off his spot in the pocket in order to disrupt the Boxers passing attack.

Overall

‘Cats by 10.  I’m coming into Saturday with full respect to Pacific.  Hanson stadium is not an easy place to win football games and Pacific is a prideful program with plenty of talent.  Our ‘Cats need to be razor sharp coming into Saturday and if they can perform up to the talent on this roster there isn’t a reason why Linfield can’t walk away from Saturday with a hard-earned and satisfying victory against a worthy opponent.

Monday, November 6, 2017

‘Cats Win!!! Linfield blanks Puget Sound in 23-0 victory in the ‘Catdome.

#17 Freshman Kyle Kimball led all receivers in yards on Saturday, including this 41 yard TD strike.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Photos Here. 
The formula worked once again as Linfield brought the salt truck on defense, used stellar special teams, and found enough offense to move to 7-1 overall on the season.  With the victory, Linfield also moved to 6-0 in Northwest Conference play, and coupled with PLU’s road win at Fox, the ‘Cats clinched the NWC title outright and the NWC’s automatic NCAA playoff berth.  The ‘Cats extended what was already an NWC record for most consecutive conference titles with the program’s 9th in a row.  It’s been an incredible run as Linfield has gone 56-1 in conference play since 2009 and have won 16 playoff games over that span.

For Saturday, the Linfield defense asserted themselves early but on the flip side the offense had some early pains, but you could see growth and confidence start to get reestablished as the game moved into the second half.  But that first half was pretty darn dreadful for the ‘Cats upfront as Linfield gave up 6 first half sacks and an additional 4 other tackles for loss.  However, as the game moved into the second half you could see the offense start to jell as Linfield didn’t give up a second-half sack, only had one 3 and out, and scored on 4 of the 7 offensive possessions. The ‘Cats offense moved the ball more effectively as nine different Wildcats caught passes and the offensive line patched those holes that crippled them in that first half.
Defensively, Linfield dominated Puget Sound in every aspect you could imagine. The Loggers came into Saturday with the 2nd best passing attack and Linfield made the Puget Sound offense look like a bad intramural football team with the pressure and physicality the 'Cats put on Puget Sound in all three levels of the game. It was the first time that Puget Sound has been shutout since the 2012 season and it wasn’t a fluke. I could go on and on as it seemed that every starter for the Wildcats at one point made a stand-out play or another.  Offensive coordinators would be better off in trying to solve the disappearance of DB Cooper than trying to solve the mystery in how to score points on this Wildcat defense. There are zero weak links on this side of the football and the defense continues to deliver the mail day after day.

Even with clinching the NWC title outright, there is still work to be done this regular season. Linfield will head back to Forest Grove for the second consecutive season to face a tough as nails Pacific Boxers team that currents sit in a 3-way tie for second place in the NWC at 4-2. The ‘Cats have had their hands full at Pacific since the Boxers relaunched their program back in 2010 and I’m not expecting anything different in 2017.  The motivation is going to be huge for Pacific and Linfield needs to meet that motivation, and then some, as the ‘Cats are looking to continue to grow on offense and try to establish the best possible playoff seeding position. Let’s get to work!

The Good

Getting the Shutout: This Linfield defense has been so darn good and should have had a shutout against George Fox, and let’s not kid ourselves, the ‘Cats should have blanked Willamette as well. So it was great to see this defense finally get that big old donut on the scoreboard against the Loggers. To go along with the 99 yards of total offense, Linfield’s defense racked up 7 three and out possessions against the Puget Sound offense. The ‘Cats ate up the Loggers offense like a birthday cake and asked for seconds.

Passing Attack: Puget Sound put eight men in the box to take away the Linfield rushing attack and dared the Wildcats to beat them in the air. The response by the Wildcats was a 300-yard passing game by freshman quarterback Wyatt Smith in his first career start.  It felt like that number could have even been bigger if not for a few drops and a couple of misses on open deep routes. Bottom line, this was the best the passing attack for Linfield has looked all season and it’s coming at the right time.

Pure Effort: Running back Dawson Ruhl changed the tied of the game all by himself last in the first half. The 'Cats were knocking on the door looking to take a 14-0 lead at the break.  The 'Cats lined up at the UPS 12 yard line and Wyatt Smith dropped back to pass and had the ball knocked out of his hand while throwing the ball.  Everyone stopped playing because it looked like an incomplete pass but the officials let the play continue.  A Logger safety picked up the ball and took off like a shot down the UPS sideline.  Only one Linfield player immediately reacted and that was Ruhl.  The Logger changed direction about the Linfield 45 to shake Ruhl but Dawson pressed on and was finally able to take him down at the Linfield 5.  The Linfield defense turned UPS away 3 times and then blocked another field goal to keep the game at 7-0. Ruhl made a winner’s play that happens purely by effort and desire. It’s amazing that a disaster of a play for Linfield turned out to be a beautiful piece of football. That is something that isn’t drawn up or you can run a drill for.  A big tip of the cap to Dawson changing the completion of the game in favor of the ‘Cats on a hustle/desire play.

Pressure: As an old defensive end the 8 sacks the ‘Cats stacked up made my chest pump up with pride. Linfield defensive end, Asa Schwartz had a career game in piling up 4 sacks against UPS. That will put Asa in a tie for 4th in Linfield football single-game history.  Along with Asa, the ‘Cats were all over Tanner Diebold like a cheap suit.  Pressure can make diamonds, but in this case, the pressure makes the Logger offense crumble.

Youth making an impact: Youth was being served for Linfield on Saturday as Freshman Wyatt Smith made his first start for the ‘Cats. Freshman Wide Reciever, Kyle Kimball, led all receivers with 129 yards, 1 TD, on 9 catches. Frosh WR, Khory Day, showed a flash of his promise in a beautiful 33 yard reception, Freshman Dawson Ruhl had 50 yards of receiving out of the backfield, Frosh Colton Ramos continued to be a big field position weapon in the kicking game, frosh Zack Jenkins continues to get it done with his long snapping, and on and on I could go. While the defense is loaded with senior leadership the offense and special teams has a lot of youth making big contributions.
#9 Andrew Schweiterman hauled in his 3rd interception of the season against the Loggers.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Photos Here
Blanket Coverage: The Loggers came into the game with the 2nd best passing attack in the NWC and our defensive backfield and linebackers locked up the Loggers receivers and threw away the key.  Linfield forced 3 picks and held the Logger passing game to 93 passing yards on 13 of 33 passing attempts.  Dustin Harrison came in Saturday’s game as the NWC’s top receivers in terms of yards and catches but Harrison limped out of the ‘Catdome with a total of 2 catches for only 10 yards.

Special teams doing their thing: The Wildcat special teams continue to shine for Linfield.  Willy Warne continues to kick at an all-american level in knocking down three out of four field goal attempts including a huge 48 field goal that could have gone from 54 yards. Colton Ramos was once again spectacular punting the ball in averaging 40.8 yards per punt that included a 50 yarder and three kicks that were downed within the Logger 20 yard line.  The ‘Cats blocked another critical field goal attempt and this time it was the big mitt of standout defensive tackle Zach Grate doing the honors. Along with the legs, Andrew Schweiterman has grown over the past few weeks as a dependable punt returner in terms of his ability to constantly field it cleanly, make good decisions, and has shown an ability to make defenders miss in space. Sweets showed off that ability with a great 24-yard return in the 3rd quarter.  Overall, it was another great day on special teams for Linfield.

The Bad

Lack of a run game: Yes, UPS put everyone and their mom in the box on Saturday to take away the Linfield rush but only netting 22 yards on 32 attempts doesn’t sit right. The Loggers were able to get too many guys behind the line of scrimmage, especially in the first half of play.

Red Zone offense: Man, Linfield could have blown this game wide open if it wasn’t for the trouble in the red zone. Linfield was only able to go 3 of 6 in the red zone and get one TD out of these trips.  The ‘Cats had two turnovers, dropped a sure-fire TD on a wide-open play, and a missed field goal as well.  Linfield has to be much better in these situations moving forward or it could spell big trouble.

The Ugly

Nothing: The defense gets an awesome shutout, the offense showed some growth, and the special teams continue to be a positive.  Overall, while it felt like the final margin of victory should have been bigger it was a solid victory that allowed Linfield to hit two of their goals (NWC title and a playoff berth). It blows me away that Linfield has now extended their conference title streak to 9 years in a row and 15 NWC titles out of the last 18 years.  What an honor to have witnessed this run of football that’s almost lasted two decades. It’s just a reminder that any day is a great day to be a Wildcat.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

2017 Game 8 Preview: Linfield (6-1) vs Puget Sound (3-4)

Get to the game!

It’s good to be back home again as the ‘Cats enter the home stretch of the 2017 regular season. In fact, it’s the final regular home game of the 2017 season for Linfield.  There is still the possibility of Linfield having a playoff game if the ‘Cats can win their final two games and be awared with a home contest in the playoff seeding but let’s not put the cart before the horse. First things first, and that’s this Saturday’s game against the Puget Sound Loggers.

The Loggers come into Saturday game playing a competitive brand of football with all four losses only being by an average margin of 10.25 points per game.  That’s quite the improvement from their 2016 season when they lost six games by an average of 23 PPG.  The difference this year is the Logger defense which has improved from allowing 40.6 points per game to now only giving up 23.0 PPG. The UPS defense has bent during the season but their strength lies in forcing turnovers with the Loggers recovering 8 fumbles and done a great job in the secondary with 9 interceptions on the season.  Along with that, the Loggers have has played well defensively in the red zone. The Loggers have only allowed 19 Red Zone scores in 29 opposition trips with 14 of those being touchdowns.

Offensively for the Loggers, the Linfield defense will a see a bit more a balanced UPS offense than in years past. The 2017 Loggers have already passed their yearly rushing attempts total from 2016 with still two games left to go. Leading the way for the Loggers is 1st-year starter and Senior Quarterback Tanner Diebold.  A new dimension that Diebold brings to the Loggers offense from previous years is Diebold’s ability to extend plays with his leg. Diebold can rush the ball effectively but what he’s done so well in 2017 is getting out of the pocket and finding receivers down the field.

Splitting the running duties for UPS are two capable running backs in Sophomores Paul Thomas and Vance Woods. Both have punched in 5 TD’s a piece on the year and offer up a nice balance to the Loggers passing game. Speaking of the passing game, UPS currently ranks second in the conference behind Whitworth in passing per game (280.1 YPG) and are being led by senior Dustin Harrison’s 50 receptions and 81.9 yards receiving per game (that’s good for 1st in the NWC in both categories).

For the Linfield Wildcats, this weekend is about seeing if the ‘Cats can find some answers. The ‘Cats are looking for answers on if this team can find their motivation and focus to compete to the best of their ability and not to the level of the opposition.  Linfield is looking for answers on if this offensive line can clean up some of their issues that’s hampered this offense this previous two weeks. The ‘Cats are looking for answers to the question if this defense can continue to live up the hype. And Linfield is looking for answers to the question of if this Linfield team can develop some sort of consistent passing attack to complement their run game.

Well, we’re going to find out if the 2017 Linfield Wildcats have this answers this weekend against a solid Puget Sound football team. Is the scuffling going to continue or is this team going to play up to the promise of the talent that packs this roster? We’ll find out soon enough.

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Adjust and perform: Every week coaches in the NWC are making adjustments and trying to get the edge against each team they line up against.  That is especially true when facing Linfield. Our plays need to be ready to adjust to different looks and make plays all over the field. Puget Sound is solid in their schemes on both sides of the ball and I’m sure will have some adjustments aimed to take away and try to exploit what Linfield has been doing for years. As players, you need to be ready to adjust and attack.

Have to have a great day of pressuring and containing Tanner Diebold: The UPS senior quarterback is currently second in the NWC in yards passing per game with 268.4 yard per game and can do it either in the pocket or extend players and be accurate on the run.  The Wildcat defense will have their work cut out for them against the Logger passing attack.

Offensive Balance: The ‘Cats need to find that balance in both the running game and making connections in the passing game. The Loggers will feature a 4-2 base defense and as been solid against both the rush and pass this season. It’s imperative for the ‘Cats to keep the Loggers off balance and not allow UPS to load up on the run.

Take Care of the Football: Puget Sound is a +5 this year in the turnover ratio and has done that by picking off 9 passes and by recovering 8 fumbles. The Loggers defense has been active on the ball this season so Linfield needs to continue to make sure securing the football (especially on what will be a wet one) is a top priority for this offense. The conditions could play a big factor in this game and who handles the weather better will have a major upper hand on Saturday.

Red Zone Defense: The Loggers have scored on 22 of their 29 trips to the red zone and with 21 of those scores are touchdowns (a 72% clip). What is interesting is that while UPS ranks 7th in the Northwest Conference in rushing, the Loggers have punched in 14 of their 15 rushing touchdowns in the Red Zone. So not only will the ‘Cats have to make sure they do a great job in coverage but will need to meet the physical challenge of turning back the Logger red zone rushing attack.

Win on Special Teams: The Linfield special teams need to continue their late-season surge by being difference makers in not only solid kicking performances but in getting down the field and getting all over the Loggers’ return team.

Offensive line having a day:  The offensive line has been under the gun the past few weeks but we need these guys to have a great day with protection and sustaining their blocks on a solid Puget Sound defense. It will go a long way towards a Wildcat victory if this offensive line can show that from the Whitworth/Willamette portion of the season.

Overall

‘Cats by 10. The ‘Cats need a good performance on Saturday for a number reasons. Puget Sound is a capable football team but the ‘Cats need to come into Saturday like it’s a playoff game. Too much hangs in the balance for Linfield to mess around and get into a dogfight with a schematically sound football team. I’m not expecting it to be perfect or even pretty but my gut tells me this 2017 Linfield team will be ready to perform and methodically choke out the Loggers in the ‘Catdome.

Monday, October 30, 2017

‘Cats win!!! Linfield survives the Lutes in 16-10 overtime thriller.

The 'Cats get it done in the end!
Yeah, that was a bit stressful as Linfield had to overcome a halftime deficit and bad field position in the 4th quarter to get PLU to overtime before punching in the winning touchdown to get out of Puyallup with a victory.  I was worried about this game since the end of the George Fox victory and my uneasiness about this road game was unfortunately proven correct.  The ‘Cats limped up to play PLU with a banged up roster on both sides of the ball and our guys didn’t have some same focus and fire I felt before the Fox game. Coach Smith knew what was waiting for the ‘Cats in the Fox postgame huddle as he told his players that PLU would be ready to give the ‘Cats all they could handle, and like a Swiss watch, Coach Smith knew what time it was.

PLU came out loose and motivated and right from the jump you knew that Saturday was going to be a dogfight right out of the gates as the Lutes offense threw to tight end DJ Winter in what seemed like 45 times on the first drive before Linfield was able to hold PLU to a field goal. After that, it was three consecutive listless 3-and-outs for the Wildcat offense before the Linfield Defense was able to make the Linfield’s first big play of the day in a strip sack by Marcus McGovern that was recovered by Jason Farlow early in the 2nd quarter. The turnover gave the offense some temporary life in a 47 yard TD drive capped by a nice 7-yard fade TD strike from Aiden Wilder to JD Lasswell. For a second, it felt like that is what Linfield needed to get control of the game and PLU. However, the tide quickly again as this ‘Cats defense got hit with a 15-yard personal foul on a horse collar tackle and then some dumb Lute magic as PLU hit a flea flicker to Winters again for a 44 yard strike to get the Lutes to the ‘Cats 10 and then three plays later PLU hit a contested TD in the corner to regain the lead at 10-7.

Both teams traded turnovers before the break and the ‘Cats went into the locker room down at half for the first time since week 2 to UMHB and left searching for answers on offense where Linfield was only able to produce a measly 50 yards of total offense. The Linfield coaching staff decided to make a change at that point and inserted freshman quarterback Wyatt Smith into the game to try to add a different dimension to the Wildcat offense.

Even with the change of QB, the ‘Cats offense opened up the 3rd quarter with punting it away after 5 plays and pinning the Lutes on their own 9-yard line. Then one of the most significant stretches of the game occurred when PLU found some soft spots in the ‘Cats secondary and went on a long 12 play drive that saw PLU take it all the way down to Linfield’s 20 and setting up a huge set off downs that saw the Linfield turn away PLU on 4th and 4 form the ‘Cats 14.

At this point, this is when the Freshman arm of Smith started to make an impact for Linfield as the ‘Cats were able to start mixing up the run game with some downfield and the intermediate passing game that saw Linfield march 73 yards in 11 plays to tie the game up on 10-10 on a Willy Warne 27 yard field goal.

From there it was holding onto your hats as both defenses put the lock on the opposing offenses and both punt teams took turns in flipping the field. It almost seemed like both teams were content in not making a huge mistake and resigned to the fact that this game was going to have to get settled in an extra frame.

What a frame it was as overtime in college football is always a wild ride in just how quickly the momentum can swing.  The Lutes had possession first in OT and went for the throat in a strike in the back of the end zone but was broken up at the last moment by safety Nate Sample. The ‘Cats defense was able to turn away the PLU offense twice more and set up a PLU field goal try. The block unit for Linfield has already proven they can be a difference maker and they came through once again as 6’5” sophomore wide receiver Chris Cassi would come up huge for the second game in a row in getting a mitt on the kick and blocking the attempt.

The Wildcat offense went right to work with a Chidubem Nnoli 11-yard scamper to pick up a first down and two plays later, Linfield would send out Willy Warne on 3rd down to win the game. However, the Warne kick sailed to the right and missed but the Lutes right gunner took a bad angle and clipped Willy’s kicking leg that drew the roughing the kicker penalty. One play is all that the Wildcats needed with the new life as Nnoli would break 4 would be tackles before hitting paydirt for the victory as the ‘Cats would hit the dogpile in an emotional 16-10 survival exercise.

It was exhausting and all I was doing was pointing my camera at the action, I couldn’t imagine how both the ‘Cats and Lutes felt after that battle. All I know is that I have to tip my cap to PLU for giving Linfield all they had and more. Yes, Linfield has rattled off 18 victories in a row over Pacific Lutheran but nothing but respect to those dudes in just a clean, respectful, and hard fought ball game.

Linfield’s defensive coordinator, Jackson Vaughan, hit it on the money when he said that this team needs to let go of the frustrations of not having the punch on offense as previous years and to embrace who this Linfield team is this year.  And that’s a team that is going to play damn good defense, have a strong kick game, and get enough offensive plays when the ‘Cats need it to win and move on. Yes, there’s not a lot of style points but if the score is 2-0 or 45-38, the team with the most points win and six out of seven times in 2017 it’s been the Linfield Wildcats with more points at the end of the day.

With that said, it’s not like the offense isn’t going to throw up their hands and say “I guess we will just suck for the rest of the year”.  That’s not going to happen but our offensive line needs to find a way to get healthy as quick as possible. The ‘Cats opening year starting five haven’t been on the field together since Whitworth as multiple players been banged up at various times and the offensive staff seems like they are in a constant state of shuffling the line.  Along with that, Linfield knows they have to find a way to start consistently throwing the football.  I’m not talking about the bombs but the plays that move the chains. If somehow the ‘Cats can quickly develop that aspect of their game it cures some of what ails this offense.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

Winning: A few years from now people won’t see Saturday as a game where Linfield struggled to beat PLU but they will see another football game that Linfield won. That’s the bottom line is it doesn’t have to be pretty but Saturday was a gut check for this Linfield program in that 2nd half and ultimately these players answered the bell and that excitement at the end of the football game wasn’t something you could force but was genuine and exciting.

Making plays when they count: When the game hung in the balance and the ‘Cats had to make the plays they needed to win the game, that’s just what they did.  It’s the mark of a winner. From Nate Sample knocking down that sure TD in the back of the end zone in OT, Chris Cassi getting a mitt on the field goal attempt, and Nnoli not being denied on the game-winning TD run. Winners will themselves to win and this roster is full of winners.

Special Teams Impact: The Linfield special teams was absolutely tremendous once again this Saturday against the Lutes. Great coverage by the punt and kick teams and once again the legs of kicker Willy Warne and punter Colton Ramos were huge.

‘Cats gutting it out/new faces stepping it up:  I don’t want to point out how bad this player was hurting, because I don’t want other teams to know how banged up this guy was this weekend, but I want to salute this dude who was basically dragging himself off the field after every possession on Saturday. Crazy respect to you.  Also, Linfield had two players making their first starts ever in Linebacker Patrick Pipitone and safety Kyell Davis. Both of these players stood up to the heat.

Red Zone Offense: Yes, the Linfield offense didn’t even total up over 200 yards of offense but Linfield made it count in when they were in the red zone in going 3 for 3 to push this team over the hump and securing the victory.

The Bad

Not being sharp enough:  It was a general feeling that you could pick up that they didn’t have that same heat or intensity as the week before. I can understand that being an issue in playing a team that on the surface wasn’t doing too hot but like I wrote before the Linfield coaching staff knew better and it was almost a bitterly hard lesson this year’s team almost felt the hard way. This Linfield team cannot just roll the ball out on the field and expect anybody to roll over. The ‘Cats have to bring it every single week.

3rd down defense/offense: The Wildcat defense has suffocated every team this season on 3rd down but Saturday was the first game all season long that Linfield allowed an offense to break the 50% on 3rd down conversions and while it didn’t amount to many points on the scoreboard, it allowed the Lutes to hold position of the ball at a much greater clip that the ‘Cats.  Flipping it over, the Wildcat offense was an abysmal 4 of 13 on 3rd down tries. Not good at all.

Too much pressure: Last three games the ‘Cats have given up 13 sacks. Obviously, that needs to get cleaned up heading into the last two weeks of the season as Puget Sound has improved on defense and Pacific is a program that prides itself on getting pressure up front.

The Ugly

Lack of a passing attack: I’m not writing this to be a downer but we know that 66 yards of passing isn't up to snuff. What I’m not saying is that we all should be expecting this Linfield team to be a 250+ yard a game passing attack for the remainder of the season but what I do hope is that the ‘Cats can find a way to be sound in throwing the ball.  This is a run-first offense but Linfield has to find a way to keep teams from loading up the box and be credible in throwing the football. If that can happen then Linfield will see the defense loosen up and should be able to pop the run game for bigger chunks. Here’s to hoping that we can find a little of that during the next two weeks.