|No game preview tomorrow...but a down and dirty PLU highlight vid?|
Like the postal service, football fans show up whether it rains, snows, sleets, or shines. But sometimes the weather simply demands that football be played. This past Saturday, Linfield was treated to a glorious day as the football gods offered up a 75 degree, sun-shining tribute to America’s game. Linfield was well represented by an enthusiastic crowd of 3,624, which consisted of alumni, current students, and community members all present to support the Cats as they took on a superb squad from PLU. Every day that fans of football have the opportunity to enjoy the game they love goes down as a victory, regardless if a win is actually achieved on the field. However, when a team dominates like Linfield did on Saturday it feels like so much more than just “W” in the win column (read more about the game in Monday’s game review). The type of victory Linfield achieved defines a team’s identity and provides a firm foundation for future success during the season. Saturday’s win cemented the idea that Linfield is for real and should be considered a national title contender with a scary defense and an explosive offense.
Next week the Cats are on the bye and so our look at the truth will be different this week. We will explore two truths the stats tell us about Linfield and one truth about the NWC conference. Finally, we will finish with a couple of quick hits.
The Truth: The Linfield defense answers the call.
The Stats Breakdown: Last week I noted that the Linfield defense was playing at an elite level but needed to generate more big plays. This Saturday, that same defense, made it known that they can make impact plays that swing the momentum of a game. In Saturday’s close contest with PLU the Cats needed a crucial stop on fourth and four with the PLU offense in scoring position. On that fourth down play, defensive tackle Jeremy Girod exploded through the line and sacked PLU quarterback Dalton Ritchey to end the Lutes scoring threat. After a punt by the Linfield offense, the defense forced a Ritchey interception which was snagged by senior safety Colin Forman. The takeaway led to a 14 play, 75 yard scoring drive for Linfield that gave the Cats a two score lead. These two plays demonstrate the incredible impact the defense can have on the outcome of the game when they make big plays. When the clock struck double zeros Linfield’s defense accounted for four interceptions (three of which led to scoring drives for the offense), four sacks, one fumble recovery, three fourth down stops, as well as limiting PLU to two third down conversions on eleven attempts. These big plays lift the Linfield defense from elite status and raise them to being unparalleled. Big defensive plays change games and determine who comes out victorious.
What To Watch For: I predict the Cats will keep the ball rolling. This Linfield defense is going to give the Cats a couple of more victories based off their play alone. Look for Jeremy Girod (leading the team with four sacks) to continue providing disruptive pressure up front and for the secondary to continue to blanket receivers and force turnovers. This year it has been in vogue to discuss Linfield’s offensive exploits, but by years end I think the discussion will be more centered on where this defense ranks in Linfield’s storied history.
The Truth: Linfield is still an unfinished product.
The Stats Breakdown: As good as the Cats were on Saturday, and man were they excellent, there is still a sense that this team has even more to offer. Truth be told, I think that’s a good thing because complacency is the death of competiveness and Linfield will need to thrive on a desire to compete throughout the season to reach their goals. Perhaps the Cats greatest struggle has been pass protection, as they have surrendered nine sacks in the past four games. However, a number of these sacks have come on plays where quarterback Josh Yoder simply needs to throw the ball away. Linfield also needs to continue to improve its play on first down in order to improve its third down scenarios. This past weekend Linfield had twelve first down plays that gained less than three yards or loss yardage. PLU has a solid defense but most of these unsatisfactory plays came down to poor execution. If Linfield can clean up first down they should generate more successful drives and create even more opportunities for points. Lastly, Linfield needs to continue to lower their penalty total per game. On the year, the cats are averaging around six penalties per game for 53 yards. These numbers aren’t a major blemish but it has created issues. On Saturday, Linfield missed out on a few scoring opportunities because of penalties and in the past four games a number of penalties have extended opponent’s drives. When you’re as good as Linfield, you don’t want your success to be potentially hindered or hurt by penalties.
What To Watch For: As the Cats enter the bye week, I fully expect the coaching staff to correct the mistakes that have hampered Linfield on the field. I predict Linfield will come out of the bye week even better than they went in; with a week to refine and improve, Linfield will come out with their sights set on lighting up the rest of the NWC. For fans of the Cats it’s thrilling to think this team could be even better; for future opponents it’s down right frightening.
The Truth: The NWC power structure is changing.
The Stats Breakdown: D3football.com recently ranked the North West Conference the third best conference in the country and it has lived up to that billing. However, it appears the hierarchy of the conference is shifting. No, Linfield is not losing its position as conference leader, but the rest of the conference could look very different by the end of the year. It was just two years ago the Lewis & Clark finished second in the league, but now they appear to be NWC also-rans once again. Whitworth who seems to annually finish fourth in the league has suffered losses against two SCIAC teams and just lost to upstart Pacific. It’s the Boxers who seem to be causing the biggest disruptions in the NWC power structure. Pacific has started 4-0 for the first time since 1950 and just earned their first NWC win against a team not named Puget Sound or Lewis & Clark. It’s likely the Boxers could challenge Willamette and PLU for a spot among the NWC’s best. Finally, there’s Willamette who at 3-0 has fought its way to a number 25 ranking, which gives the NWC three teams in the national top 25. All in all, this is shaping up to be an exciting and competitive year in the North West Conference.
What To Watch For: The conference games in which PLU, Willamette, and Pacific play each other will be worthy of your attention. I think those games decide who wins the title of second-best NWC team and could potentially decide who garners a Pool C bid for the playoffs. It will be intriguing to see how things shake out for Whitworth. Coming off three consecutive losses things don’t get any easier for them these next two weeks as they travel to Willamette this week and then host Linfield the following week. Also circle Nov. 16th on your calendar; on that day Pacific hosts Linfield in a regular season finale that could involve two undefeated teams duking it out for the NWC crown. My prediction is the NWC finishes as follows: Linfield, PLU, Pacific, Willamette, Whitworth, Lewis & Clark, and then UPS.
Quick Hit #1: Linfield is averaging 233.5 rushing yards and 301.2 passing yards per game. They have scored 15 rushing touchdowns and 11 passing touchdowns on the year. Lastly, the Cats have gained 110 first downs this season (54 on the ground and 56 through the air). Linfield’s balanced approach on offense makes them an arduous challenge for any defense.
Quick Hit #2: The Wildcats have yet to trail this year and have only been tied during a game once. That tie lasted less than two minutes.
Quick Hit #3: Linfield’s defense is allowing 8.8 points per game and posted consecutive shutouts for the first time since 2002.
Quick Hit #4: On the year Linfield has averaged 81 offensive plays per game compared to 62 plays for their opponents. This disparity in plays run demonstrates Linfield’s commitment to the hurry-up, no huddle offense and that commitment has clearly paid off for the Cats as they are posting 49 points per game.
Quick Hit #5: The Wildcats have scored the majority of their points (averaging 18.5) in the fourth quarter, which demonstrates this team’s ability to finish games. This skill will be essential later in the season and is a characteristic found on every championship team.