Friday, December 11, 2015

2015 National Semifinals Preview: Linfield (12-0) at St. Thomas (13-0)

Let's go.
4 Teams.
2 Games.
1 Dream.
1 Goal.

This is pretty darn awesome.  You’re Linfield Wildcats are one of four remaining teams in Division III battling it out for the right to play for the National Championship next week in Salem, Virgina. The ‘Cats are on the road this week as Linfield is traveling to St. Paul, MN to play the University of St. Thomas Tommies. In fact, I’m sitting in the lobby of a Courtyard Marriott near the MSP airport typing this while sipping on a really bad cup of hotel coffee.

First, let’s talk about why Linfield is on the road this week.  I’ve had a number of people on social media asking the question: “Hey, Linfield is ranked #2 in the country, why are they traveling to UST this weekend?” I’ll give you the down and dirty version on why the ‘Cats are on the road:  The D3football.com poll has zero impact on the playoff seeding. It’s a media poll that D3football.com puts out (I’m a voter) to gauge the strength of division III football and how pollsters think teams will fair once they reach the post season.  Usually, the D3.com poll is pretty darn accurate.

The playoff seeding is done by four regional groups of D3 coaches/reps and a national board. They have a set criteria they use to rank the top 10 in each region the last three weeks of the season. Once the final regional rankings are done (we don’t see those), they are sent to the National Committee and they use that information to build the brackets.

When the first regional rankings came out, UST was ranked 1st in the West Region with Linfield being ranked lower and it was that way over the 2nd poll and I’m assuming the final poll as well.  Even though Linfield wasn’t ranked 1st in the West Regional, the National Committee still rewarded Linfield with one of the four 1 seeds but UST was the higher ranked team per the playoff committee and so the ‘Cats are on the road for this one.

And that’s fine by me. In fact, I’m thrilled Linfield is on the road this weekend.  Maybe I’ll come to regret that statement but one of the major hurdles this program is still looking to get over is a playoff road win in the Midwest. Linfield has fallen to UWW in 2009, St. Thomas in 2010, and again Whitewater in 2013 and 2014.  All of those games where hotly contested but Linfield has come up short time and again in the central time zone.  Yeah, having an opportunity to host the Semifinals in McMinnville would be thrilling but the challenge and opportunity to finally bust through on the road in the midwest is too great to kick rocks about not being able to host this weekend.

Standing in Linfield’s way is a tremendous University of St. Thomas football team.  I mean, come on, there are only four teams left in the country.  All four teams that are left are really freaking good but St. Thomas has been exceptional in 2015.  The Tommies currently sit 13-0 and have done it by scoring 53.6 points per game and only allowing 9.3 points per game.  That’s Mount Union type domination and doing that in the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Conference makes it an even more impressive feat. The Tommies feature a bruising running game, a big play passing attack, and an aggressive lights out 3-4 defense that has punished teams from game one all the way though their quarterfinal contest.
The UST offensive line is massive.  This is the largest offensive front the ‘Cats will have faced this season as the Tommies front five average 6’ 4” tall and 306 lbs and toting the rock being the Tommies’ earth movers is Jordan Roberts, who many consider to be the best running back in Division III (1,701 rushing yards, 130.8 yards per game, 5.8 average and 29 rushing TDs).  Balancing out the rushing attack, the Tommies have a highly effective passing game with senior John Gould as the trigger man.  Gould has thrown for 2,796 yards this season, 25 TDs against only 10 picks. Gould is also threat to pull the ball down in the pocket and take off as he’s picked up 247 rushing yards (5.1 yards per rush) and has busted a 62 yard scramble this season as well.

To me, what makes this Tommies offense so dangerous is their tight end Charlie Dowdle. The UST tight end stands 6’4” and nearly 240 lbs and is a fast big play match-up issue for any defense in the country. Dowdle is leading UST in TD receptions (9), yards per catch (21.7), and yards per game (60.2). As big of threat Roberts is toting the rock, Dowdle is the guy that can break games open for UST with his is ability to stem up safeties and corners in man coverage and blow past them.  

On the other side of the ball, the UST defense has been so darn tough this year on the opposition offense.  The Tommies run a 3-4 base defense and have the ability bring pressure for a number of looks and situation. UST’s defense is only allowing 2.3 yards per rushing attempt on the season and teams have only rushed for 83.5 yards per game.  Thowing the football hasn’t exactly gone very well for teams against UST as well.  The Tommies defense has smothered passing games this year to the tune of 133.7 passing yards allowed a game and only 8 passing TD’s allowed.  What makes the UST pass defense so unique is the size and skill of their corners as Mozus Ikuenobe and Jordan Young stand 6’2” and 6’1” respectfully and have been locking up receivers all year long and allowing the Tommies to stack the box and hammer away at offenses.

Rounding out this dangerous UST team is their Special Teams.  Folks around division III feel that UST might have the best collection of special teams play in the country.  UST kicker Paul Graupner is 7 of 11 on the season and a long of 51 yards on the year.  The Tommies have been a great kick and coverage team though out the season and have returned a total of 5 punts and kicks back for TD as well.

Overall, this will be the best team that Linfield has face this year.  The Tommies may not be quite as fast or as athletic as Mary Hardin-Baylor but I can promise you that UST isn’t going to make the type of mistakes UMHB made (taunting, bad snaps, dumb targeting penalties, etc). This is a big and tough football team that is also schematically very good and disciplined.  Linfield is a clear underdog this game as the D3 pundits have all picked UST to move onto the Championship game and that’s understandable.  UST has rolled and Linfield is coming into this game having to survive UMHB and has some lingering health questions as well.  However, I love Linfield’s chances tomorrow.  Yeah, it’s going to be really darn hard but this Linfield team has the talent and heart to find a way to victory.

Get to Know A Wildcat

#5 Mitchell Kekel, Linebacker, Sophomore
Hometown: Beaverton, Or., High School: Westview High

Favorite place to eat in Mac: 1882

Favorite Movie: Southpaw

Favorite Music: Schoolboy Q

Favorite TV show:  The Walking Dead

Favorite Book: The Prince by Machiavelli

Class I Most Look Forward to: Genres of the Iraw War

iPhone or Android: iPhone

Personal Mantra: We don’t ask no questions, all we do is bang

Car or Truck: Jeep

What first inspired you to play football: Growing up going to Oregon State football games made me want to play college football

Favorite Coach Smith Saying: “You deserve nothing.”

Favorite part of playing at Linfield: Post Linfield aspirations: Being part of something bigger than football.

Post-Linfield aspirations: Law School

Wildcat11 Keys To Victory

60 minutes of Linfield Football: Team. Excellence. Attitude. Class.  Nothing more to say than that.

Slow down the UST rushing attack: The running game for UST is the tip of the spear. Linfield’s defense has to find a way to muck up the line of scrimmage and limit the strength of the Tommie run game.  I’m expecting Linfield to do a great job early in the game but the true test for the ‘Cats rushing defense will be in the 2nd half and if our defensive front can take the punishment of the Tommies big boys for four quarters.

Not be one dimensional on offense:  As fun as it was to watch the ‘Cats turn back the clock to 2004/05 last week against UMHB, I would feel so much better if this offense could find a way to move the ball on the ground respectfully against UST.  So much of the Linfield pass game is predicated off the run fake and if the Tommies don’t respect the rushing game our big play passing strikes will be hamstrung. Along with that, being able to find rushing lanes will help keep the UST pressure game in check and hopefully assist in keeping bodies off our Quarterbacks in the pocket.

Limit the UST big play: The Tommies have dudes that can break it open on offense. The Tommies have 7 receivers with long plays of over 50 yards or more and both running backs Jordan Roberts and Tucker Trettel have the ability to bust off huge runs. Linfield has to bottle up the big play and if UST is going to get their points, let’s make them earn them on sustained drives instead of giving up anything easy.

Receivers stepping up the challenge: Our Linfield receivers are playing against the best defensive backfield they’ve seen this year and this will be a critical match-up in the game.  There are going to be balls in the air that the Wildcats receivers are going to have to climb the ladder and make plays on the ball. I’m not expecting to see our receivers running around on UST wide open like last week so our guys are going to have to be willing to stick themselves in dangerous situations in order to makes plays.

Tackling: It sounds still to say “tackling” in a final four football game but Linfield’s defense need to have a money game in the tackling department.  The ‘Cats have to rally to the football and be great in open space one-on-one situations in order to limit the UST offensive production.  If Linfield can have a great tackling day, the ‘Cats will have a chance to win this football game.

Limit mistakes/take care of the football/awareness: Obviously,  Linfield cannot afford a bunch of unforced errors this weekend and taking care of the football is critical in playoff football.  You see it time and again in games where you have comparable teams that the one that can take care of the football is the one that will typically move on.  Along with that, UST has a well earned rep for taking advantage of teams that might be falling asleep at the wheel with fake special teams plays, gadget plays, etc, etc.  Good football awareness will go a long way in keeping that contained.

Special Teams coverage: I’m not asking the Wildcats special teams to break one open or block punts for field goals (I’ll take it) but what I would love to see from the ‘Cats special teams is outstanding coverage on Saturday.  Field position this game could be huge and there is no better way to create short fields but pinning teams deep with great special teams coverage.  UST is outstanding on special teams but Linfield isn’t too shabby as well.

Overall

‘Cats by 3. Linfield cannot afford to spot UST a big lead like the ‘Cats did last week.  Linfield is going to have to trade blows with UST early and often and see if the ‘Cats can keep the game close for four quarters and see if they can make some more late game magic to knock of the Tommies and punch their ticket to Salem. Go ‘Cats!

8 comments:

MommaBear said...

How can we watch the game from Oregon?

Dan H said...

ESPN3: http://espn.go.com/watchespn/index/_/id/2691524/linfield-vs-st-thomas-mn-semifinal-2

Dan said...

'Cats by 3???? You are kidding, right? St. Thomas beat St. Johns (still in the top 10 nationally) 38-19, and in reality that was about a 45-6 game. This was the second St. Thomas win over St. Johns, they also beat them 35-14 up in St. Cloud. By contrast, you guys play in a cream puff conference.

St. Thomas is the only 1 of the 4 remaining teams playing sound defense.

St. Thomas, 40-10.

Dan said...

If you guys play like last week it will be 50-10 or 60-10! ;)

Dan said...

Expect to Lose.

Bryce said...

Riddle for Heisman

Brady Beeson said...

St. Thomas 52 Linfield 6.

Dan said...

Yawn. The game against St. John's was more competitive. Little bit of a dead cat bounce in the 4th quarter led to a final score closer than the actual game.