-By Cory Edmonds
Before game day I like to text my younger brother (a senior linebacker on the team) a brief message of inspiration. On Saturday, with a less than convincing win over Whitworth in their rear view, I sent him the following message:
Today is not a day for mercy.
Today is not a day for half speed.
Today is a day for statements.
Today is a day to remind the nation that you are a team to be reckoned with!
Today is a day to leave no doubt!
An 84-7 drumming of Lewis & Clark was about as clear of a statement as one could hope for. Clearly Lewis & Clark is far from a quality opponent, but the dominant effort Linfield put together on Saturday left no doubt about the Cat’s ability. This team is championship caliber and, based off the number of Linfield records it took down on Saturday, it might just be historic. One could break down all the statistics from the game against the Pios, but all you really need to know is that Linfield faced all of four third-down conversion attempts and the team’s ten offensive scoring drives averaged 3.6 plays and 1:10 in time elapsed. Meanwhile, the starting defense held Lewis & Clark to three first downs and a mere 68 offensive yards during the first half. On Saturday, dominant was spelled L-I-N-F-I-E-L-D.
For the Cats there is no time to rest on their record-breaking accomplishments, as they travel to Salem this next weekend to battle with the Willamette Bearcats. Although Willamette just suffered a loss to PLU, the Bearcats are a proud team that will give all they have to defend their home turf. In today’s installment of Tuesday Truths we will explore two truths the stats tell us about Linfield and then one truth the stats tell us about Willamette. Finally, we will finish with a couple of quick hits on the upcoming game.
The Truth: Linfield can churn out yards on the ground.
The Stats Breakdown: Saturday’s effort against Lewis & Clark exemplified this truth as the Cats steamrolled their way to 351 yards rushing while averaging 8.4 yards per rush. However, the Cats have been piling up yards on the ground all season. On the year, Linfield is averaging 251 yards rushing per game and is gaining 5.3 yards per rush. Additionally, the Cats have amassed an impressive 27 rushing touchdowns through their first six games. Although Linfield has sported its fair share of elite signal callers over the past decade (Yoder, Inns, Boehme, Elliott, Matthews), this team is loaded with capable runners and should continue to rely on that strength. As the season progresses, the weather will continue to get colder and wetter making a potent ground game essential. What makes the Cats special is how they are achieving their ground success; Linfield sports three running backs that average 40 or more yards a game while each of the three backs has at least two rushing touchdowns. Additionally, the Cat’s three main backs possess varied skill sets that make for difficult game planning; Shaffer uses power to gain hard earned yards, Willis is lightning in a bottle and can explode in space, while Josh Hill is an all-around monster displaying good hands, quick cutting ability, and excellent pass protection. Good luck figuring out how to stop this group from gaining yards and scoring touchdowns.
What To Watch For: Linfield attempts 47 rushes per game so expect more of the same this Saturday against the Bearcats. Add in the fact that Willamette is forfeiting 259 yards rushing per game, and the Linfield running backs should be looking forward to a feast. Look for the Cat’s coaching staff to find ways to get all three backs involved in the running game. I expect the Cats will rush for over two hundred yards and score at least two touchdowns on the ground against a suspect Willamette run defense.
The Truth: Linfield is solid in all three phases of the game.
The Stats Breakdown: You all know about Linfield’s high-octane offense and their suffocating defense, but recently the special teams unit has definitely raised its level of play. At the beginning of the year, Linfield’s coverage team seemed like a potential weakness; however, the group has been outstanding over the past three games. The Cat’s kickoff coverage unit has limited opponents to a paltry 17 yards per return. This improved coverage has forced opponents into poor staring field position and limited their effectiveness on offensive drives. The Cats haven’t punted much this year (only 16 punts in six games), but on those 16 punts Linfield has played well. They are averaging 40.6 yards per punt while allowing only four yards per return. In fact, Linfield’s punt unit has been so good at times that opponents have only attempted five returns on those 16 punts and four of Linfield’s punts have been downed inside the 20 yard line. Add in an effective return game for Linfield (24 yards per return on kickoffs, 8.5 yards per return on punts) and a legitimate field goal kicker (7/10 on FG attempts, 4/5 made from 40-49 yards out) and it’s clear the Cats are exceptional in all three phases. Complete teams like Linfield can expect success deep into the playoffs.
What To Watch For: Linfield’s special teams units need to be ready for Saturday as Willamette has had great success in the return game- more on this in a moment. Look for Linfield to potentially use the squib kick to limit the Bearcats return game and expect the Cat’s coverage team to fly down field all day. Winning the battle of field position could go a long way in this one.
The Truth: Willamette loves the big play.
The Stats Breakdown: Ever since Mark Speckman left Willamette in 2011, the Bearcats offense has taken on a dramatically different look. Airing it out has become their calling card and behind the arm of senior Josh Dean the Bearcats have lit up the stat sheet. This year they have turned in a number of big plays that have propelled them to a 5-1 season; their only loss coming to PLU. On the year the Bearcats are averaging 6.4 yards per play and an impressive 12.7 yard per pass completion. These numbers clearly illustrate their downfield approach and ability to create in the open field. The team also claims rushes of 26, 33, 53, and 54 yards as their longs for four different runners. Additionally, the Bearcats have connected on passes spanning 31, 36, 38, 66, and 74 yards. Add in three kick returns that went for touchdowns and this team’s ability to make explosive, momentum-shifting plays becomes very clear. Willamette will look to make more of these types of plays on Saturday in an effort to steal a win from the Cats.
What To Watch For: Last year Willamette was rolling through their schedule putting up huge stats but then they collided with Linfield and the unstoppable force that was their offense was shut down by the immovable object that was Linfield’s defense. In that game last year Linfield held Willamette to 108 offensive yards and ten points scored. Once again Willamette boasts some dynamic play makers, but Linfield’s defense is as deep as it is talented and so I expect them to minimize the Bearcats offensive output. Look for the Wildcats to get after Dean and unsettle Willamette’s downfield passing game, while continuing to dominate the line of scrimmage and prevent any semblance of an effective run game (opponents are averaging 1.9 yards per rush against the Cats) from surfacing during the game. If Willamette keeps this game close it will be due to big plays; therefore, it is imperative that Linfield keep everything in front of them. Limit the explosive play and the Wildcats should come away with a win.
Quick Hit #1: Quarterback Josh Dean is the focal point of Willamette’s offense but he relies heavily on two receivers. On the year, 64 percent of his passing yardage has been gained by Derek Traeger and De’Zhon Grace. Furthermore, 13 of his 21 passing touchdowns have been caught by the two receivers. Linfield will need to blanket these receivers and force Dean to look elsewhere.
Quick Hit #2: Linfield is holding teams to a dominant 27% conversion rate on third down. On the year, Willamette is only converting on 37% of its tries. Getting Willamette’s offense off the field should contribute to a Linfield victory.
Quick Hit #3: Willamette has scored an average of 17 points in the first quarter. Linfield must prevent them from starting strong if they hope to be successful. The team must be ready to go from the first whistle.
Quick Hit #4: Over the past three games Linfield has completed 11 passes to its tight ends with positive results. Against a strong Willamette secondary (11 interceptions, 37 passes defended), look for this trend to continue. Linfield should be able to find favorable matchups as their athletic tight ends will likely be covered by slower linebackers.
Quick Hit #5: Halfway through their conference schedule the Linfield defense has yet to surrender a rushing touchdown to an NWC opponent (only two rushing TD’s allowed on the whole year). It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.