Monday, December 7, 2015

‘Cats Win!!! Linfield completes an epic 38-35 comeback win over UMHB to move on.

#5 Brian Balsiger had a massive day in the 'Cats comeback over UMHB
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here
"The Comeback in the ‘Catdome".  That’s what I’m calling it and I don’t care if it sticks or not.  What a gutsy effort by your Linfield Wildcats this past Saturday against an explosive and talented Mary Hardin-Baylor Football team.  The game started about as poorly as you could imagine with the Cru blasting Linfield to take an early 21-0 lead and it looked like Linfield might get run out of their own building.  UMHB was using the Linfield method of blowing teams out: pin a team deep in their own territory, forcing a quick possession or turnover, providing a short field to your offense, score, repeat.  However, all it took was for UMHB to just provide the ‘Cats with the slightest glimmer of hope and Linfield capitalized to storm back into the game as if there was no doubt that the ‘Cats were going to prevail.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some amazing football games since I first started playing at Linfield in the mid 90’s and there is not a single doubt that this game will be one Linfield fans will talk about for decades to come.  Huge swings in momentum, each team coming up with clutch plays, great individual efforts, and a last second field goal to seal a playoff clinching victory for Linfield. Wow, that game is why these players choose to come to Linfield over other programs out in the far west.  A chance to measure up against one of the premiere programs in the country and have a shot at earning the right to play for a National Championship. A lot of places talk big about this or that, but Linfield continues to walk their talk.

The turning point? With a little over 6 minutes to play in the 1st quarter, a UMHB safety breaks up a 3rd and 9 pass near the Linfield 40 and decides to “shush” the Linfield sideline/crowd.  It was clear taunt and he did it right in front of an official.  Being flagged for the unsportsmanlike conduct was an automatic call.  First down Linfield and five plays later, touchdown Linfield.  After that, it was new life for the 'Cats and a huge momentum swing.  That all could have been avoided by UMHB if the player just jogged back to his sideline after making a routine knockdown.  If that player would have done that, who knows how the games turns out.

After Linfield punched in that first Linfield TD, the ‘Cats would capitalize on the first of three UMHB turnovers to bring the lead to 28-14 and Linfield was “this close” to making it 28-21 right before the break.  After the quick start by the Cru offense, the Wildcat defense was bending some but no longer breaking and allowed Linfield to work their way back into the ballgame.

Even though the ‘Cats were still down 28-14, you could feel the ‘Cats confidence headed into the locker room.  My father, who has been coming to almost 99% of Linfield home games since I started playing way back in 1994 has a little tradition of bringing me something to drink or eat at halftime by the Linfield locker room tunnel.  When I walked up to him he handed me a drink and said “We’re winning this ball game.”  He said he was standing near the UMHB sideline and could just sense their doubt a mile away and knew eventually the ‘Cats would pull it out.  My Dad has always had a remarkable ability to sense the emotional status of sports teams (he’s a long time coach...a great one) and he was 100% right once again.  Even with the remaining deficit there was ZERO doubt of who was in control of that football game in the Wildcat locker room.

In fact, here’s what Coach Smith told his guys at halftime:

Coach Smith was right that it wasn’t right away but eventually the offense started to move the ball, while the ‘Cats defense kept turning UMHB away.   Once Linfield made it 28-21 in the 3rd quarter, it was just a matter of when Linfield tied the game and took the lead.  When the ‘Cats took their 1st lead of the game at 35-28 with 5:19 left to play it felt like it was in the bag. However, UMHB isn’t one of the best teams in the country for nothing.  The Cru popped an 85-yard TD pass to knot the game back up at 35-35 and then the ‘Cats almost blew it with a pick at the Linfield 22-yard line.  It looked like Linfield was in deep trouble but if it was nerves, crowd noise, luck, whatever, the UMHB center sailed one over Cru Quarterback Blake Jackson’s head and it was a dead sprint for the ball.  Jackson had a shot at it but the ball slipped free and Alex Hoff once again was there to pounce.  Wow.

From there, it just seemed automatic.  Linfield moved the ball 33-yards (with another clutch 3rd down conversion) to set up a Michael Metter field goal attempts.  The Cru used two timeouts to try to ice Metter but not a chance.  Michael left no doubt on the kick as it sailed upwards splitting the uprights. Victory, Linfield.

With the win, Linfield moves onto the Final Four for the second consecutive season to face a tremendous University of St. Thomas program in St. Paul, Mn. We’ll go in-depth on the Tommies either on Wednesday or Thursday but what a ride this team has put us on.  What a season. What a team.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good

No quit:  You’re probably tired of reading this but I can’t fully express how proud I am of how much heart this Linfield team showed on Saturday.  So many teams would have rolled over when going down 21-0 like that in the opening moments of the game but the coaches didn’t waver and neither did their players.  I know that some fans and pundits will point to UMHB and say they “choked” but that discredits what Linfield did to UMHB.  After going down 21-0, Linfield went on a 38-14 run to close out that game.  That doesn’t happen to the Crusaders but Linfield just did it. We’ve seen it from this program on and off the field but when the chips are down, these young men know how to rally together. Incredible.

Pass Protection:  Major props to the Linfield offensive line and running backs for the job they did in protecting Tommy Knecht.   That was the best defensive line that I can remember coming through the ‘Catdome since I’ve been around and the ‘Cats offensive line stood tall on passing downs. UMHB came in with 55 sacks on the season and Linfield only gave up 2 in 54 passing attempts and for the great majority of the game, the ‘Cats offensive line game Tommy a clean pocket to stand and deliver.  Outstanding job by the ‘Cats offensive line.

#41/#55 Alex Hoff did Alex Hoff type things against the Cru.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here
Defensive Adjustment:  I don’t know if there were any major adjustments made by Coach Vaughan but he was able to settle his guys down after giving up three quick touchdowns to UMHB and Linfield did a fantastic job in keep the ‘Cats in the game while the offense worked the back into it.  The second half is when the ‘Cats defense especially settled down and keep UMHB locked up that entire half except for the big TD strike late. It wasn’t the prettiest of defensive games for the ‘Cats but Linfield made the plays they needed to win the game.

Receivers:  The offense started clicking when this group of receivers started making plays on the football.  That 98-yard touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter was basically two deep plays where Knecht put the ball up and let our guys go up and make a play on the football.  Time after time this group made great catch after great catch and put Linfield in position to win this football game.  Not bad for a group of guys that the NWC coaches didn’t think much of.

Atmosphere:  That was an electric football environment.  The crowd was hanging on every single snap, call, play.  The place was bursting at the seams with emotion and if you missed out, I feel bad for you.  Sometimes the Linfield faithful can get a wrap for sitting on their hands but our fans are incredible smart and they know when it’s time to pitch in for the players on the field and our fans brought their "A" game against the Cru.

The Linfield faithful witnessed an instant classic.
Photo Courtesy of Brad Thompson: View Brad's Linfield Football Photos Here.
Pressure:  I thought the ‘Cats did a great job in pressuring the UMHB passing game. Linfield sacked Cru quarterbacks four times and applied constant pressure that helped break up the Crusader passing attack and I felt was a big component to limiting their offense in the 2nd half.

Tommy Knecht: What can you say about Tommy’s performance?  Starting his 2nd game ever, against one of the best defensive lines in the nation, and he throws for nearly 500 yards, 5 TD’s, and landed himself in the top 5 of a number of single game records in program history.  I thought TK looked composed and in command from the jump and the team rallied around him. Sam Riddle is this program’s leader and quarterback but that’s about as damn good as it gets for a guy coming off the bench and showing no fear in the face of a pressure cooker situation.  That says a lot about who Tommy Knecht is as a person.

Desire: The ‘Cats had a truck full of this all game long.  Watching Alex Hoff run down TWO errant snaps and beat two skillful quarterbacks for the football was a thing of football beauty.  That is 100% desire.  The offensive line putting it all on line to give Knecht just an instant more time, receivers giving their body up for the ball, Erick Douglas III throwing all 175 lbs of himself in a dead sprint into a UMHB returner, Spencer Payne jumping out of the ‘Catdome for a critical 3rd down conversion, Dylan Lewis laying completely out to save a kick return for TD, etc, etc, etc.  Linfield was full of heart and desire on Saturday and it was an honor to watch these guys lay it on the line.

The Bad

Opening 5 minutes:  That was about as badly as you could have scripted an opening five minutes if you were Linfield. The defense looked confused; the offense was turning it over deep in Linfield’s own territory, and made it too easy for UMHB to punch it in.  While the ‘Cats were able to pull it together and storm back against the Cru, Linfield CANNOT afford to do that against UST.  They’re too well coached, too talented to spot a lead like that this Saturday.

The Ugly

Not a darn thing:  An epic football game, electric crowd, playoffs, storming the field, tears of joy, and  #35 being raised above the team in celebration….that’s about as good as it gets.

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