Friday, November 18, 2016

2016 Playoff Round One Preview: Linfield (8-1) at Hardin-Simmons (9-1)

Here we go.
The second season has begun. This is what everyone at Linfield has been waiting for since last December, a chance to be part of the 32 teams in the country playing to crown a national champion five weeks from now. But, Linfield is going to have to do this in a way that most everyone didn’t think was going to be the road laid at the feet of the program. And by road, I mean the road as in five possible road games in a row if Linfield is able to keep advancing in this post-season. And each step of that journey is treacherous and filled with some of the very best teams that Division III has to offer.  That first step begins out in Abilene, Texas against the runner’s up of the American Southwest Conference, the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys.

The Cowboys were the defending ASC champions coming into 2016 and came up one quarter short of being the repeat champs and knocking off what is now the Number 1 team in Division III, The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders. Needless to say that the Cowboys are the real deal and are also a National Title contender in the this field of 32 teams. The Cowboys are a historically outstanding program that has had to live in the shadow of the rise of UMHB and had to rebuild itself under Head Coach Jesse Burleson. The Cowboys took their lumps in the first couple of season under Burleson but he has grown this team under his identity into an explosive, fast, and hard-nosed program that has the talent to beat anyone in Division III.

Hardin-Simmons offense is currently average 513.9 yards per game (10th in nation) and 46.7 points per game (7th in the nation).  The engine of that offense is senior quarterback Ryan Breton who has thrown of 2,470 yards on the season, 22 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions.  Breton is a very creative player who can extend plays and who doesn’t need to be planted in the ground to deliver accurate passes. Breton has some outstanding targets as well as Sophomore Reese Childress is the Cowboy go-to receiver. The 6-1 target can do it all and will the best receiver that the Wildcat defensive backs have faced to date. But the Cowboys are far from a pass only team.  The Cowboys average nearly 200 rushing yards per game behind an incredibly physical offensive line. The ‘Cats have their work cut out on defense in what is facing possibly their biggest challenge of the year.

Flipping over to the other side of the ball, Linfield’s offense better bring it against a big defensive front and athletic linebacking and defensive back group.  The Cowboys are led by their Linebacker battery of Cory Ward, Josh White, and Matthew Hawkins who have combined for 254 tackles on the season.  That is pretty darn outstanding but the depth of this defense goes beyond their LB’s.  The Cowboys have been a sacking machine this season in piling up 33 QB sacks on the year while spreading the love throughout the defensive unit.

For Linfield, this is a huge opportunity to go on the road and beat an outstanding football team. I truly believe Linfield has grown tremendously since the UMHB game. The Wildcat offensive line had to make changes after center Will Heck broke his ankle and that was a setback for the offense.  The insertion of Center Gabe Mojarro into the starting role was the beginning of the reconfiguration and growth of the Wildcat line and offense. As Mojarro and the offensive line has jelled, the offense has continued to grow throughout this season and become a really damn good unit. The play of the Linfield offensive line tomorrow is going to be critical in establishing a rushing game and giving Sam Riddle time to operate. If this group can play to their potential, the Wildcat offense is going to be able to do be productive.  For the defense, the ‘Cats are going to have their hands full. This season, the ‘Cats hasn’t been racking up the sacks and HSU doesn’t give many up. So Linfield, is going to have to find ways to not only limit an effective rushing attack but try to get to the HSU QB. It won’t be easy but who said anything worth while was?

Wildcat11’s Keys To Victory

Be ready for a 60 minute battle: This is going to be a battle for the ‘Cats. The Cowboys are a hell of a team and so the ‘Cats are going to have to have all hands on deck for a full 60 minutes of football.  The ‘Cats will be to be their best selves tomorrow and limit the blemishes that have bogged this team down and play to the strengths of what makes this team one of the best. There will be ups and downs in the game but Linfield needs to ride the waves and keep their minds and focus on the present and doing their very best on the next play on if the ‘Cats are up or down on the scoreboard.

Limit the Cowboy rushing attack: Hardin-Simmons has a fantastic offense. One of the best in the nation so it’s not like the Cowboys couldn’t lean on their passing game or just rushing the ball to win football games but if lets the ‘Boys get loose on both the ground and air it’s going to be a short playoff run for Linfield. The Cowboys currently rush for 191.8 yards per game and are led by Jaquan Hemphill (83.7 yards per game and 11 touchdowns) with Shaun Williams offering up a nice counterpunch at (36.5 yards per game and 5 touchdowns).

Run the darn football:  This is a litmus test for the Wildcat program. Linfield HAS to be able to be effective running the football in the playoffs against elite level programs. We all know if Linfield can establish the rush, the offense is going to move the ball and puts points up on the board.  The Linfield offensive line has done nothing but improve as the season has progressed and the Wildcat rushing attack with Payne, Cassill, and Choisser has been a monster for Linfield.  Saturday is when the rubber meets the road for the Wildcat offense.

Can’t turn it over: Turnovers are what make this Linfield team good or makes this team great. When Linfield can keep the turnovers down this team can beat anyone in the nation but when Linfield is putting the opposition in prime field position or killing promising drives that is when Linfield is vulnerable and beatable. Ball security and decision making is of the highest importance come Saturday.

Keep the Cowboys off of Sam Riddle:  The Linfield offensive line will have their work cut out as are playing against a defense that has sack opposition quarterbacks 33 times this season. It isn’t just one player that is piling up the sacks for the Cowboys but have five players with over 3 sacks each. It’s not only the sacks but the ‘Cats have to keep Sam clean in the pocket and allow him to step into throws in what will be windy conditions at Cowboy stadium.

Limit the explosive plays: Hardin-Simmons offense is super explosive.  The Cowboys average over 10 plays per game that go over 20 yards or more.  HSU has over 102 of these plays per game with 62 of those via the passing game. The Linfield defensive backs will have a huge task as the Cowboys don’t give up many sacks and give their dynamic QB ample time to makes plays with his arm.

Make a difference on Special Teams: Alex Bell for HSU is a kickoff return weapon. Bell has 16 returns on the year, averages 38.4 yards per return, has three touchdowns, seven other returns of over 33 yards or more. Linfield has to find a way to keep the Cowboys special teams bottle up and now allow them to flip the field on the ‘Cats and give the HSU offense short porches to work with.


‘Cats by 1. Yeah, this isn’t going to be easy. Hardin-Simmons is a fantastic football team and right up there with UMHB in terms of talent, coaching, speed, and explosiveness.  Linfield is going to be in a battle in every way imaginable against HSU. However, this Linfield team has all the tools required to find a way to advance and overcome. I can’t wait to see what this Linfield team will do when it’s make or break.

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