(Photo Courtesy of Linda MacClanathan)
-By Cory Edmonds
It took a few days, but I think my heart just regained its normal arrhythmia following Saturday’s intense game against the Pacific Boxers. After a whole season where they had never trailed at halftime, the Cats found themselves in that exact predicament out in Forest Grove last Saturday. The Boxers came out supercharged in an effort to honor their 39 graduating seniors (a group that was paramount in rebuilding the program) and snag a signature Northwest Conference win. The atmosphere in Forest Grove was electric and at times the crowd of 3,200 felt more like 6,000 as they boisterously cheered on every Boxer third down conversion, tackle, and so on. Essentially, Saturday’s level of play and atmosphere were reminiscent of a playoff game and, thus, served as preview of what awaits Linfield over the next several weeks. Luckily for the Linfield faithful, the Cats displayed grit and resolve-quintessential characteristics of a playoff contender-in pursuit of the win. No one would claim Linfield played its best game of the year, but they did fight hard to gain the victory and that’s what excellent teams do; even when they struggle, great teams persevere and find a way. After claiming a fifth straight NWC title and finishing their third straight undefeated regular season, there remains little doubt about the prowess of this team. The following are a few statistics that stand as a testament to this team’s talent:
3 rushing touchdowns allowed.
1.8 yards per rush allowed.
238 yards per game allowed.
A +18 turnover margin.
A record tying 45 rushing touchdowns.
An average +44 margin of victory.
500 offensive yards gained per game.
16 different offensive players scored touchdowns.
However, Linfield has little time to reflect on its accomplishments this season as they open the playoffs with a difficult draw against rival Pacific Lutheran. It's always tough to beat a quality team twice in a year but Linfield will have to do exactly that this weekend. If past performance is any indicator of future success, then it seems Linfield will be up for the challenge.
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 Lutheran. Finally, we will finish with a couple of quick hits on the upcoming game.
The Truth: Linfield’s offense needs to get rolling early.
The Stats Breakdown: This truth was definitely evident in last week’s game but it also plagued Linfield in their earlier matchup with PLU. In that matchup, Linfield held a mere seven point lead over PLU up until a 22 point explosion in the fourth led to 29-0 Linfield win. This week Linfield can not afford to get off to a slow start. PLU is an excellent second half team, as they have scored 148 points in the second half of games this year compared to 122 in the first half. The team has even posted two fourth quarter comebacks (vs. CLU and Pacific). Linfield’s offense hasn’t stalled often this year- remember, they do average 55 points and 500 yards per game- but the two games they have gotten off to slow starts in (vs. PLU and Pacific) have been by far the closest games of the year. Linfield needs to charge out of the gate and add to their impressive 292 first half points this week in an effort to put PLU away early.
What To Watch For: Look for Linfield to be focused from the get go and take hold of the game’s momentum. Linfield will rely heavily on the run, but don’t be surprised when they take a few shots down the field to loosen up PLU’s suffocating defense. After last week’s close call, look for Linfield to remind everyone of their status as the NWC’s best. In my brother’s words, I expect Linfield to leave no doubt by “burying them six feet deep, still breathing.”
The Truth: Takeaways will be the key for Linfield’s defense.
The Stats Breakdown: In many ways last week’s narrow victory depended on Linfield’s ability to create takeaways. A forced fumble on a punt return set Linfield up for their first score and two late interceptions sealed the win for the Cats. Linfield has relentlessly pursued takeaways this year and has gathered 26 on the year (17 interceptions and 9 fumble recoveries). Linfield has also scored four defensive touchdowns and will look to add to that total on Saturday. Luckily for the Cats, PLU has specialized in giving the ball away as they have surrendered the ball 29 times on the year or an average of three turnovers per game. In their previous meeting with Linfield, PLU turned the ball over five times (four interceptions and one fumble recovered). PLU's quarterback, Dalton Ritchey, has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and the team fumbles the ball nearly four times per game with opponents recovering about half of those fumbles. PLU will almost certainly turn the ball over and Linfield will take advantage of their miscues.
What To Watch For: Linfield will do everything it can to force PLU into its tendency to turnover the ball. Look for players to gang tackle and rip at the ball in an effort to increase PLU's fumble total and add to their misery. If Linfield succeeds in limiting PLU's running game, then they should have ample opportunities to intercept Ritchey who has been a bit reckless with the ball this year. Expect at least one instance where this game turns on a costly PLU turnover.
The Truth: The game plan for stopping PLU hasn’t changed.
The Stats Breakdown: Even though it’s been six weeks since Linfield persevered to a 29-0 victory over PLU, it’s not like PLU has suddenly changed their scheme or has added new playmakers. Consequently, Linfield will look to replicate their actions from that previous game. The defensive recipe for success against PLU includes the following: contain quarterback Dalton Ritchey (leads PLU with 10 rushing touchdowns to go with 13 passing touchdowns), limit the run, and shut down dynamic wide receiver Kyle Warner (48 receptions, 804 yards, 8 touchdowns). Offensively, Linfield will look to establish the run, move the pocket to protect the quarterback, and utilize the screen game to diminish the impact of PLU’s front seven (3.6 sacks and 7.3 tackles for a loss per game).
What To Watch For: Last time I previewed this game I wrote the following in this section: “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 give him opportunities to scamper. 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.” I stand by my assessment, but would emphasize how crucial it is for Linfield to stop the run. In the previous matchup, Linfield held PLU to 40 yards rushing on 22 attempts which forced the Lutes to pass more than they would have wanted and generated four interceptions for the Cats. Look for Linfield to sell out on the run and reap the benefits in the secondary.
Quick Hit #1: Linfield continues to dominate in the red-zone, as they are scoring touchdowns on 86% of their red-zone trips. If Linfield gets into the red-zone look for them to score touchdowns and not simply settle for field goals.
Quick Hit #2: For all of his talent, PLU quarterback, Dalton Ritchey, has been a turnover machine this year. To go along with his 14 interceptions, the the junior signal caller has fumbled the ball 14 times and lost four of them. That's 18 turnovers attributed to Ritchey. If this trend continues it may be a tough day at the office for PLU's quarterback.
Quick Hit #3: With injuries depleting Linfield's defensive line, it will be important for someone to step up in that group. My money is on junior, defensive tackle Jeremy Girod who has seized 5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss on the year.
Quick Hit #4: PLU's running back, Niko Madsen, is third on the team in receptions and yardage (22 receptions, 251 yards receiving). Look for the Lutes to throw the ball his way to produce opportunities for the speedy back to make plays in space.
Quick Hit #5: PLU is having trouble scoring touchdowns in the red-zone; they boast a 64% red-zone touchdown conversion rate. Against Linfield's stingy red-zone defense (allowing only 45% of red-zone trips to culminate in touchdowns) PLU's struggle will likely continue.
Quick Hit #6: Since they ended their season on a bye-week, PLU will have had two weeks to prepare for this game. Don't be surprised if they have inserted some different looks- triple option, wishbone, or otherwise- in an effort to confound Linfield's defense.