(Photo Courtesy of Linda MacClanathan)
-By Cory Edmonds
Familiarity often leads to complacency, and after playing PLU three times in the previous 14 months there was a possibility the Cats could display some complacency in their fourth contest against the Lutes. Instead, the Wildcats responded with a resonant first half that included momentous plays in all three phrases- two 70 yard drives, a strip-sack, and a blocked punt. The Cats did more than just get a victory on Saturday; they made a definite statement. Linfield seized control and didn’t let go until the clock read double zeros showcasing their championship potential and leaving no doubt about PLU’s status as the NWC’s runner up.
One could babble endlessly about the Cat’s effort on Saturday and the way in which they displayed tenacity and poise, but this is the playoffs and so it’s on to the next one. The next one happens to be the Hampden-Sydney Tigers from the eastern state of Virginia. The Wildcats have never played the Tigers; thus, the game will lack the familiarity of last week’s game but should contain just as much intrigue. Whereas PLU’s potency revolved around their defense, the Tigers depend heavily on the dynamic nature of their offense. Overall, this week’s game will give Linfield an opportunity to refine their game and demonstrate their ability to those outside the Northwest. If you’re a fan of quality football, make sure you get out to Catdome this Saturday and support your Cats.
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 Hampden-Sydney. Finally, we will finish with a couple of quick hits on the upcoming game.
The Truth: Linfield needs to avoid a third quarter lull.
The Stats Breakdown: As I stated above, the Cats broke down the door early in their game against the Lutes, but Linfield did experience a break from their dominance during the third quarter. This respite allowed the Lutes to make the game momentarily interesting before the Cats restarted the engine and sped away to victory. In fact, the statistics illustrate that Linfield has a tendency to struggle after intermission, as they have only scored an average of 6.2 points in the third quarter compared to 16 points scored on average in every other quarter. It’s true, in some ways this can be attributed to the fact that they have often held massive leads at the break and haven’t required the same sense of urgency following halftime. However, regardless of the reason, this is a trend that needs to end. In the playoffs, every quarter is essential and the team must demonstrate the same sense of urgency from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
What To Watch For: Expect Linfield to improve their third quarter play by coming out more aggressive, both in their play calling (more misdirection, screens, and play-action) and in their performance. The senior Cats know that win or lose this is likely their last home game and they are going to ensure they leave a lasting impression. This set of seniors is undefeated at the Catdome and I imagine they are set on keeping it that way- a solid third quarter will go a long way in accomplishing that goal.
The Truth: Linfield will get the victory if they lean on their rushing attack.
The Stats Breakdown: It’s no secret the Cats like to run the ball (49 rushing attempts per game) and so the Tigers will certainly scheme to stop Linfield’s rushing attack, but ultimately the Cats will win this game because of their efforts on the ground. Linfield has been dominant running the ball this year as they have gained an average of 262 rushing yards per contest which has culminated in 48 rushing touchdowns on the season. Furthermore, the Cats average a robust 5.4 yards per carry and boast four ball carriers with over 300 yards rushing. Luckily the Cat’s strength coincides with Hampden-Sydney’s defensive weakness. The Tigers have allowed 138 rushing per game, although they have managed to hold teams to 3.4 yards per rush. However, their schedule does not include many high caliber opponents and their latest games have painted a clearer picture of their defense’s struggles. In the last two contests against higher quality opponents, the Tigers have surrendered an average of 245 yards rushing at 4.8 yards per carry. If Linfield sets out to expose this weakness further, then expect a victory to follow.
What To Watch For: The read-option should be in full effect on Saturday; quarterback Josh Yoder and running back Josh Hill will get a number of opportunities to make momentous plays with their feet. I also expect Linfield to continue to utilize Tavon Willis and Spencer Payne in the fly sweep like what was witnessed on Saturday-when those two get in space they can make tacklers miss and explode for big gains. Linfield has been incredibly balanced offensively this year (261 rushing yards and 224 passing yards per game), but look for Linfield to make its most notable plays on the ground this coming weekend as they march down the field to victory.
The Truth: Hampden-Sydney’s offense is potent.
The Stats Breakdown: Statistically speaking, this offense can make it happen and the following stats make that clear: 35 points scored per game, 447 offensive yards per game, 161 yards rushing and 286 yards passing per game, 29 rushing and 25 passing touchdowns, and 42% conversion rate on third downs. Yet, the offense’s production is vastly dependent on two individuals: quarterback Nash Nance (a D-1 transfer from Tennessee), and wide receiver Holton Walker. Nance has 41 combined touchdowns (25 passing and 16 rushing) and leads the team in rushing attempts, while Walker has 15 receiving touchdowns to go along with 103 receptions and 1559 yards receiving. Yes, you read that correctly: 103 receptions and 1559 yards receiving. The next closest receiver on the team has 24 receptions and 341 receiving yards. Beyond the rushing talents of Nance, the Tigers rely on two-headed backfield of Brady Macko (557 yards, 8 rushing touchdowns) and Chris Shembo (461 yards, 3 rushing touchdowns). The Tigers will keep the ball in these four players hands for the majority of the game but Nance’s and Walker’s play will likely determine whether or not the Tigers find offensive success or not.
What To Watch For: The Tigers do just about everything on offense and aren’t afraid to use trick plays or take shots down field (Walker alone has at least seven receiving touchdowns that spanned 30 yards or more). Expect Nance to attempt to make plays with his feet and focus his passing efforts on connecting with Walker. In order to stop this potent tandem, Linfield will need to bump Walker at the line, get pressure on Nance, and force turnovers- in their worse loss of the year, Nance threw five interceptions. Look for Linfield to possibly double team Walker, at 6’2” and 205 pounds he’s a large target, or at the very least shade the safety to whichever side he lines up on. Linfield has played teams with offensive talents that seemed formidable based off their stats before, think Keith Welch, Kyle Warner, or Josh Dean, and completely shut them down. I don’t know if Linfield can keep these two players from making any big plays but I know that Linfield has a plan and that the Cat’s defenders will do everything possible to limit them from being truly effective.
Quick Hit #1: Linfield’s Josh Yoder keeps inching closer to the 20/20 club (20 passing touchdowns to go along with 20 rushing touchdowns) as he has claimed 19 passing touchdowns and 16 rushing touchdowns on the year.
Quick Hit #2: Hampden-Sydney has attempted 43 fourth down attempts this year and has converted 22 of them (51% conversion rate). Expect the Tigers to dial up at least two fourth down attempts this Saturday.
Quick Hit #3: Linfield has seen an uptick in its sack production over the past four games (15 sacks). If this trend continues it will dramatically decrease Hampden-Sydney’s chances on Saturday.
Quick Hit #4: In the red zone Hampden-Sydney tends to run the ball with their quarterback. At least ten of Nance’s fifteen rushing touchdowns have come from within the ten yard line.
Quick Hit #5: The Tigers have been fairly effective on third down completing 42% of their third down attempts. With Linfield’s defense playing especially stout on this down (allowing only a 30% conversion rate), it appears yet another game may come down to third down play.