|This is what you play for.|
You have to love it that Linfield is once again playing football in December. What an honor and pleasure it is to be only one of eight teams still remaining in the NCAA Division III playoffs as Linfield will host the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders in one of four Quarterfinals games being played this Saturday.
Every game this weekend is a who’s who of Division III football; Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, St. Thomas, Wesley, UW-Oshkosh, Wabash, UMHB, and Linfield. These eight teams have a combined record of 91-4 this season and are currently the #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #7, #11, and #13 ranked teams in the country according to D3football.com. Every one of these teams expects success each season and expects to make deep runs into the playoffs and earn an opportunity to play for a National Championship. There's no more fodder left in these playoffs. It’s the best of the best and Linfield is no exception as one of the elite in the country is coming to the ‘Catdome this Saturday and UMHB has the Stagg Bowl on their minds and vengeance in their hearts.
The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor is a great football team and easily the best team Linfield will have faced this season. The Crusaders are rich in talent and have no weak links in all three phases of their game. It’s a complete football team, and in many ways, a better version than last year’s UMHB team that Linfield was able to knock off in Belton, Texas.
The Cru’s 2015 started off like most UMHB seasons, as the Crusaders just bowled over opponent after opponent and looked to be in cruise control for another undefeated season and high playoff seeding once again. However, UMHB was upset in their 8th game of the season by Hardin-Simmons (29-26) and the Cru was put in a situation they haven’t had to be in for a very long time and that’s a team having to play their way into the playoffs. UMHB responded in the final two weeks of the season in dumping Howard Payne and East Texas Baptist by a combined score of 134 -34. UMHB received one of the coveted Pool C berths (at-large) and was shipped off to play HSU for a 1st round rematch where the Cru dispatched the Cowboys 37-19 and then handled Huntingdon at home 43-22 to punch their ticket to McMinnville.
In many ways, UMHB’s 2015 is very similar to Linfield’s 2014. A true National Championship contending team and that had a bad Saturday against the wrong team. That loss to Hardin-Simmons immediately put UMHB into playoff mode and the Cru has responded big time and look to carry that momentum into this weekend as their players and staff have been nothing but respectful but also have made it clear that they’re relishing the opportunity to give Linfield a dose of their own medicine and eliminate the ‘Cats from the playoffs.
The way that UMHB is planning on doing just that is using an up-tempo but balanced offense, a smothering 4-3 defense, and an outstanding special teams group that’s capable of breaking games wide open.
The Mary Hardin-Baylor offense has once again been fantastic this season in averaging 51.1 points per game. The Cru average 227.2 rushing yards per game (5.0 per carry) and 258.2 passing yards (14.7 yards per completion). The Cru primarily run out of the gun with a single back but will go two-back as well. UMHB loves the play-action pass game and with that running attack you can’t blame them. It’s a lot of zone read look, pop up, and deliver the ball to your play makers and let them work. UMHB’s starting QB, Zach Anderson, has been highly effective this season in throwing for 2,419 yards, 22 touchdowns, off of a 60.4% completion rate. UMHB and Anderson will throw the ball deep as the Cru has some fine receivers on the other end that fit their system perfectly.
However, the UMHB offense starts with the running game. The Cru will be attacking Linfield with a big and athletic offensive line (average about 6’ 4” and 282 lbs) and with a thunder and lightning running back duo in Malcolm Miller (thunder) and Duane Thompson (lightning). Along with the two running backs, both Zach Anderson and Blake Jackson (UMHB’s 2nd QB, who will play against Linfield) are both fine running threats as well (the two QB’s have rushed for 851 yards and 13 TD’s this season). It’s an offense that’s very much like Linfield, in that, if the rushing game is going (it typically is) the rest of the offense is going to open up and be hard to keep out of the end zone.
Linfield fans probably still have a pretty good memory of UMHB’s special teams from last season and it’s not surprising that the Cru is still really darn good here as well. The Cru has one of the better punt and kick return groups in the country led by corner back Bryce Wilkerson. Wilkerson averages 14.8 yards per punt return (2 TD’s) and averages 27.1 yards per kick return (1 TD). Linebacker Baylor Mullins is back as the UMHB punter, and yes, he’ll pull it down and rush for 1st downs if he sees an opportunity. But where UMHB has probably improved the most on special teams is place kicker Jacob O’Neill. Coming into Saturday, O’Neill is 18 of 23 on the year (78.3%) and is 6 of 8 on field goals of 40-49 yards. You can tell UMHB puts time into Special Teams as a program and will be a key match-up for the ‘Cats.
Last but not least, let’s talk UMHB defense. The Cru doesn’t do anything fancy or exotic with their defense. They’re going to play in their 4-3 cover 2 defense for big chunks of the game and dominate you with their defensive line and let their athletic linebackers and defensive backs blanket your receivers. The UMHB defense has racked up 55 sacks on the season with almost every single one of them being generated by the Cru’s defensive front four. Along with the sack numbers, UMHB has racked up 137 tackles for loss, only allow offenses to convert on 3rd down 25% percent of the time (51 of 2015), give up only 1.9 yards per rushing attempt, and have taken away the football 35 times (22 picks, 13 fumble recoveries). So the Cru has all of that going for them, which is pretty good.
So, I’ve already burned through over 1,100 words talking about how great UMHB is and for a good reason. With all of that said, this Linfield football is capable and has the talent to win this football game. No doubt, it’s going to be a huge challenge and battle but would you want it any other way?
Wildcat11’s Keys to Victory
60 minutes of Linfield Football: This is another all hands on deck football game for Linfield. Nobody on this roster needs to do more than just their own job. Every play, your job. Over and over again. Your job. This team and program has thrived for years on the faith and trust that the man next to you is going to handle their own responsibility and when Linfield does that the ‘Cats will be in great shape. There’s going to be high amounts of adversity throughout this game but Linfield has to stick to their core values and belief. Team. Excellence. Attitude. Class.
Contain the UMHB run game: Easy to type, but much harder to do. Linfield is going to get a heavy dose of Miller, Thompson, Anderson, and Jackson this Saturday and if the ‘Cats have visions of winning this football, Linfield has to do a solid job of bottling up the Cru rushing attack. First, Linfield has to have excellent gap responsibility. Second, the ‘Cats have to have a great day of tackling. Miller gave Linfield trouble last year with this bigger body and Thompson, Anderson, and Jackson are all elusive rushers.
Find a way to run the ball effectively: The ‘Cats have to find a way to get Payne, Willis, and Choisser open lanes if the offense is expecting to put points up against this defense. It’s going to start up front with the Linfield offensive line and the ‘Cats are facing an outstanding defensive line and linebackers. If the ‘Cats are able to rush the ball, it’s going to open up the Linfield offense to attack the UMHB secondary.
The Linfield secondary having a day: The UMHB receivers are dangerous. You’re not going to see an overly tall group out their but they’re fast, very good route runners, and are dangerous with the football in their hands. Once again, Linfield’s outstanding secondary is going to need to come through in a big way to limit the big play and be great in open space.
Linfield receivers stepping up: If UMHB’s defense shuts down the Linfield rushing attack, the fate of the ‘Cats offense is going to rest in our receivers’ ability to get open and make plays on the football. Obviously the NWC coaches didn’t think very highly of our receiving group (not a single NWC honor) but over the past month this group has grown tremendously. They have to come to play this Saturday.
Protection: Huge match-up between our offensive line and the UMHB front four. Did I mention that these guys can get to the QB yet? Defensive End, Teidrick Smith has 18 (!!!) sacks on the season, while running mate, Jon Isom has 12 of his own this season. Then up the middle you have DT Haston Admas with 9.5 sacks and Brazos Fuller with 5.5. It doesn’t matter who’s standing behind the Linfield offensive line as it’s a massive key to keep our quarterbacks upright in the pocket and allow them to get the ball cleanly off.
Pressure: Linfield has to disrupt the passing attack by UMHB and the ‘Cats can do that if they can get Anderson and Jackson off their mark. UMHB’s QBs will get rid of the ball quickly but Linfield is going to have opportunities to work moves and see if they can get to the Quarterback. You know UMHB spent a lot of time on what to do with Hoff this week, so it’s going to have to be McGovern, Schwartz, Farber, Handran, Reimer, Kekel, to make UMHB pay if they send extra bodies at Hoff.
Decision Making/Taking Care of the Ball: Ball security and decision making with the football was already going to be of critical importance for this game but with the weather forecast is calling for a wet one that just makes securing the ball all that much more critical. Linfield has to be GREAT with decision making. No stupid penalties, no personal battles. Play a hard and clean game and take care of the football.
Special Teams: Linfield HAS to be great here. UMHB is too good on special teams to let them break off huge returns or extend drives off of not paying attention to Mullins on punting downs. Also, the Cru' has been good with blocks as well so there cannot be a letdown in any aspect of special teams.
‘Cats by 3. I have butterflies and I’m just a blogger/videographer, I can’t imagine how players from both Linfield and UMHB are feeling right now. If you’re on the fence about getting to the game, don’t think too much about it. Just get to the game. It’s not too often you get two of the very best in the country together at the ‘Catdome and Linfield will need every voice they can get. For the game, Linfield is going to have to play a great game in order to pull it out but this team is built for a chance like this. One play at a time. Go ‘Cats!