|Wes Meng (#16) and the Wildcats are going to have to bring it this Saturday in the 'Catdome.|
(Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's work here. )
At the beginning of the season, I thought Linfield would have to battle through these first three games in order to find their footing and establish a team identity. Instead, from the very first kickoff, Linfield has besieged their opponents and displayed a commanding sense of identity. The senior leadership on this team seemingly has the Cats prepared for whatever challenges may come their way. That distinct mental fortitude and commitment to excellence is going to be more imperative than ever as Linfield enters conference play. The Cats put on a defensive clinic and flashed moments of their potential on offense this last weekend against Case Western Reserve (check out Monday’s game review), but they are going to need to be better than ever this coming weekend as Linfield commences conference play against the Lutheran’s of the north: rival, Pacific Lutheran. It promises to be a thrilling game, as both teams enter the contest ranked (Linfield at second and PLU at eleventh) and both teams know just how important this game could be in achieving their postseason aspirations.
We will explore two truths the stats tell us about Linfield and then one truth the stats tell us about the Lutes. Finally, we will finish with a couple of quick hits on the upcoming game.
The Truth: Linfield needs to be better on first down.
The Stats Breakdown: This truth probably sounds nitpicky for an offense that is averaging 578 yards and 56 point per game and it is exactly that: nitpicking. But when you are a national championship contender, getting meticulous should be expected and encouraged. Over the last two games (CLU and Case), Linfield has 30 first down plays that have gained two yards or fewer, and nearly half of these plays actually lost yardage. The reason this is problematic is because it sets Linfield up in unfavorable down and distance situations. Gaining less than three yards on first down or even worse losing yardage, constrains Linfield’s play calling and produces adverse third down scenarios. For the most part Linfield’s struggles on first down have gone unnoticed because they have been just so exceptional on third down (completing 62% of their attempts). However, the Cats can not continually rely on their high third down conversion rate to bail them out. This will be especially true against a potent, determined Lute defense that has found success early and often this year. The Lutes have a talented front four and can get after the quarterback (10 sacks on the year). Additionally, Pacific Lutheran is holding offenses to a respectable 41% conversion rate on third downs. All of this makes the Lutes a threat if Linfield can’t be better on first down. First down success will prevent PLU from sending the cavalry and attacking the quarterback.
What To Watch For: Look for the coaching staff to find ways to net positive yards on first down more consistently. Expect a number of wide receiver screens and other high percentage pass plays. Also look for the offensive line to improve its play and increase Linfield’s rushing efficiency.
The Truth: Linfield needs to generate more big plays on defense.
The Stats Breakdown: This truth is another exercise in hypercritical thinking but after back to back dominating efforts from the defense it’s hard not to strive for perfection. Although the Linfield defense has been downright masterful there is still room for improvement. The one thing missing from the defense this year has been the big play. Last year, the Cats seized 18 interceptions, collected 8 fumble recoveries, and laid waste to the opposing quarterback 47 times. This year, through three games, Linfield only has three interceptions, one fumble recovery, and three sacks- not exactly numbers that jump off the page. However, last week’s game against Case Western was an encouraging sign of change, as the Cat’s reached the quarterback twice, recovered a fumble to halt a potential scoring opportunity, and returned an interception 71 yards to drive the final nail in the coffin against Case Western. Another encouraging sign are the seven quarterback hurries and five pass breakups Linfield accumulated last Saturday. These statistics demonstrate that Linfield is close to making those big plays. In a game that’s always close (last year in two games vs. the Lutes the Cats won by a combined ten points), big plays are going to be necessary on both offense and defense. The Cats defense will need to dig deep and find ways to shift the momentum of this week’s game.
What To Watch For: Linfield needs to come after the Lutes from the very beginning of this game so expect the defense to be psyched. PLU has fumbled the ball eleven times this year (quarterback Dalton Ritchey has six fumbles himself) but has been fortunate enough to only lose three of those fumbles. Look for Linfield to jar the ball loose and reverse the Lute’s luck when it comes to lost fumbles. PLU has also thrown five interceptions; I predict an exceptional Linfield secondary finds a way to make a play and snag a turnover. Cornerback Brandon Funk may have his hands full with PLU’s Kyle Warner, but as he will be guarding the Lute’s best offensive weapon it follows that he may end up with the best chance to make a big play in the secondary.
The Truth: PLU is a legitimate challenger.
The Stats Breakdown: Although PLU has not appeared nearly as dominant as Linfield in their opening three games, they should prove a proper test for the Cats. PLU boasts a balanced offense with two dynamic playmakers and a stalwart defense that has kept opposing teams out of the end zone. PLU’s offense revolves around Dalton Ritchey- a dual-threat quarterback averaging 221 yards passing and 50 yards rushing per game. Just how much involved is Ritchey in PLU’s offense? Well, he has nearly as many rushing attempts as PLU’s lead running back and has been involved in eight of PLU’s eleven touchdowns. However, it’s hard to key on one element of the Lute’s offense as they have been extremely balanced in their approach averaging 196 rushing yards and 220 passing yards per game. Yet, to be successful Linfield will need to start with stopping the Lute rushers who are sporting and impressive 5.9 yards per rush. Defensively, the Lutes are anchored by their front four. As a team the Lutes are surrendering roughly 150 yards rushing per game; however, they have been extremely tough against the pass allowing only 141 yards per game through the air. Throw in ten sacks (eight against CLU alone), four interceptions, and three fumble recoveries and it’s easy to see why PLU is known for exceptional defensive play. Just this last weekend the Lutes held UW-Eau Clair out of the end zone on a two point conversion that would have tied the game in order to give PLU the 21-19 road victory. This defense knows how to buckle down and make the needed stop.
What To Watch For: The Lutes will try to establish the run early as it opens up their down field passing game. Linfield will need to stay alert and not get caught looking into the backfield on PLU play-action; the Cats will also need to be disciplined as PLU will employ a number of option looks with Ritchey in order to get him into space. Last week was the defensive line’s game to make plays but vs. the Lutes I expect the Linfield linebackers (seniors Dom Forrest and Tim Edmonds) to be all over the field. The coaches may even use one of them to spy Ritchey all game and keep him contained. Expect PLU to make some plays on both sides of the ball but I believe Linfield will make more plays bottling up the Lute offense in crucial situations and making the necessary offensive plays to unsettle PLU’s defense.
Quick Hit #1: PLU is only scoring on 56% of their red zone visits, which is the same low rate that Linfield is allowing offenses to score at in the red zone. On the flip side Linfield has scored on 19 out of 19 red zone visits (a ridiculous 100% conversion rate) and the PLU defense is surrendering points on 73% of red zone trips for the opposing offense. This matchup clearly favors Linfield and effectiveness in the red zone could very well decide this game.
Quick Hit #2: Senior quarterback Josh Yoder has been playing like a Gagliardi Trophy candidate. He is averaging 302 yards passing on a 67% completion rate to go along with 38 yards on the ground per game. Add in averages of nearly three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown per game and Yoder has simply been dynamic. Expect big things from the senior on Saturday.
Quick Hit #3: Linfield has to stop Kyle Warner. On the year, he has 18 receptions for 324 yards which is only 20 yards less than the rest of the Lute’s combined receiving yards. He also accounts for two-thirds of Pacific Lutheran’s touchdown receptions. Last year he owned Linfield racking up 12 receptions for 205 yards receiving in Linfield’s narrow 24-21 playoff defeat of PLU. That simply can not happen this year.
Quick Hit #4: PLU already has two close road victories over worthy opponents in CLU and UW-Eau Claire. Don’t think for a second they will be fazed by going on the road against Linfield.
Quick Hit #5: On Saturday, kicker/punter Josh Repp hit a 43-yard field goal right before the half. Repp also has been successful on tries from 37 and 40 yards out. In a series that has been close lately, having confidence in your kicker is huge. Look for Repp to potentially nail a significant field goal in this game.