Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tuesday's Truths and Quick Hits

#59 Tyler Steel and the 'Cats defense has been piling up the tackles for loss in 2013.
(Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's 2013 Linfield Football photos here. )

-By Cory Edmonds
Last Saturday was Linfield’s Senior Day and the game result was truly indicative of how talented and determined this senior group has been throughout their four (five for a few) seasons at Linfield. Not only did the senior members of this team make plays all over the field but they also put on a display in cheering for their fellow teammates- particularly for the younger players. My favorite moment of the game came late in the fourth with the final result already decided. A third or fourth stringer for Linfield forced a fumble causing the Linfield sideline to erupt. Even though all of the senior starters had been removed around the second quarter they were still totally engaged and clearly enthused for their teammates. It’s that sense of brotherhood and that sense of passion that makes Linfield football so special and has made this group of players so much fun to watch over the past four years. Next Saturday, this group of seniors will play their last regular season game and with a victory would post a four-year, regular season record of 35-1 (that one loss coming in the first game of their freshman years). However, it is not time to reflect back on this group’s accomplishments just yet, as the regular season’s end signals the beginning of postseason possibilities. There is still plenty to be done and it starts this Saturday as the Cats look to secure their fifth outright NorthWest Conference Championship by defeating a resilient Pacific team. Beyond the Conference Championship, a win would send the Cats into the playoffs with some solid momentum.

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 Pacific. Finally, we will finish with a couple of quick hits on the upcoming game and more.

The Truth: Linfield’s Josh Yoder is on fire.
The Stats Breakdown: Linfield’s senior signal caller has been on an absolute tear ever since the Lewis & Clark game. In the past three games, Yoder has passed for six touchdowns and rushed for seven touchdowns while only throwing one interception. That’s an average of four touchdowns per game attributed to the senior. Furthermore, in those three games has averaged 84 yards rushing and 160 yards passing in limited work-as Linfield has been putting opponents away early. Yoder’s dual threat ability, coupled with improved offensive line play has made him an exceptional weapon down the stretch. Yoder continually finds a way to extend passing plays with his legs or turn up field and power forward for yards. Linfield’s read-option rush offense would not be the same without Josh Yoder and the past three weeks have clearly demonstrated this as Linfield’s rushing game has been downright dominant (in the past three weeks Linfield has rushed for 351, 451, and 289 yards, respectively.) Yoder has also been deadly accurate these past three weeks; in that three game stretch, he has completed 73 percent of his passes. If quarterback play is any indication of a team’s future success, then Yoder’s recent showings have the Cats primed for the next step.
What To Watch For: Look for the Cats to utilize Yoder’s varied skill set, especially his ability to run, in order to neutralize a fierce Pacific defense. Pacific boasts two solid, pass-rushing defensive ends; thus, read-option runs will be critical in this game to force those defenders into making a read, which prevents them from just pinning back their ears and gunning for the quarterback. In order to further limit Pacific’s defense look for the Cats to roll the pocket and get Yoder out into space; thus, giving him the option to take off and run if the coverage prevents a pass. This Saturday, Yoder will once again be at the center of Linfield’s offensive assault.

The Truth: Linfield’s defense keeps getting better.
The Stats Breakdown: It’s no secret that Linfield boasts one of the nation’s best defenses (nationally ranked 3rd in yards allowed and 3rd in points allowed). However, the past four weeks have seen the Cats improve on their singular defensive weakness: getting to the quarterback. Over the past four weeks, Linfield has sacked the opposing quarterback 15 times, which is nearly double the number of sacks the Cats accumulated in the first four games.  Pair this stat with Linfield’s 10.3 tackles for a loss per game and it’s exciting to see what further damage this defense can do as it rounds into form. Linfield’s defense has simply not budged when defending the rush (allowing 1.7 yards per rush) and has become increasingly tough to thrown against (165 yards passing allowed per game). Simply put, there isn’t much this defense hasn’t been able to do.
What To Watch For: Against Pacific’s multiple offensive sets (spread, power, pro) it’s important to be disciplined so expect Linfield’s defense to be dialed in. The Boxers also allow a minimal 4.5 tackles for a loss per game; however, they have not faced a defense quite like Linfield’s and so I believe the Cats will find themselves making tackles in the backfield at a level more consistent with their average (10.3 tfl per game). The Boxers have really worked to improve their run game in order to make them less dependent on the pass and so far this season it’s worked for them. Yet, I expect Linfield to bottle up the running game and once again force a team to become one dimensional. Look for a relentless push up front which should lead to opportunities for success in the secondary.

The Truth: This is a quality Pacific team.
The Stats Breakdown: I know that after Pacific’s loss last week this game is no longer the de facto NWC Championship game, but make no mistake this is still a very talented Pacific squad. The Boxers are loaded with senior talent and those seniors will be playing in the last game (a pool C playoff bid is highly unlikely for them) of their careers. Clearly this team won’t lack any motivation. Add in the fact that their two losses this year have been by a combined five points and both were on the road against teams considered to be in the top 30 of the country and it’s clear that Linfield won’t be a playing Puget Sound again this week. In fact, Pacific ranks towards the top in a number of statistical categories at the national level: 10th in sacks, 39th in tackles for a loss, 13th in red zone offense, 17th in third down conversion rate, and 7th in team passing efficiency. They are balanced as an offensive rushing for 158 yards per game, while passing for 242. Furthermore, they have scored 18 times on the ground and 24 times via the air. This kind of balance is difficult to defend and, thus, present a significant challenge for the Cats. On the defensive side, Pacific has been more explosive. The team has sacked opposing quarterbacks 32 times and has snagged 12 interceptions; all while collecting 7 fumble recoveries. Linfield will need to pay extra attention to ball security on Saturday and work diligently to avoid costly turnovers against a team that has collected its fair share this year. Overall, this Pacific squad is certainly a potential threat to Linfield’s undefeated regular season.
What To Watch For: Does this all mean I think Linfield will lose this contest? Of course not; in fact, I think Linfield could still win quite handily. However, if Linfield expects an opponent that will roll over or be overwhelmed by the Cats’ talent, then Linfield will be sorely mistaken. In order to diminish the effectiveness of Pacific look for the Cats to run the ball early and often- the Boxers main defensive weakness seems to be its run defense as they are allowing 121 yards rushing per game. If Linfield can establish the run game, then it will allow the offense to open up and push the ball downfield. As I stated earlier, I also expect Linfield to move the pocket, run misdirection plays, and call screens to limit pressure from Pacific’s front four-especially their two defensive ends. To inhibit Pacific’s offense look for the Cat’s to stack the box and force the Boxers to win through the air. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an uptick in the number of Linfield blitzes this game considering that last week Willamette sacked Pacific’s quarterback six times.

Quick Hit #1: Pacific will rotate between two quarterbacks: seniors PJ Minaya and T.C. Campbell. Minaya gets the majority of the work and is the more polished passer, whereas Campbell offers more mobility.
Quick Hit #2: Linfield has 41 rushing touchdowns on the season, which puts them four away from tying the single season record set in 2002.
Quick Hit #3: Linfield continues to hold opponents to a 26 percent conversion rate on third down. Pacific is converting a solid 46 percent of third downs. Third down could be especially critical in determining the game’s result this coming Saturday.
Quick Hit #4: Pacific’s top two runners boast impressive yard per carry numbers; junior Deven McKinney is gaining 7.4 yards per rush, while senior Gunther Schutlze is producing 5.1 yards per carry. Linfield will have to reduce those numbers significantly.
Quick Hit #5: Linfield’s secondary will need to focus its energy on senior Jordan Fukumoto (35 rec, 692 yards, 8 tds) who has been Pacific’s best player over the past four years.

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