Photo courtesy of the Linfield Athletics Department
MCMINNVILLE, Ore.-The Linfield Wildcats, 11-0 on the year and UMHB’s quarterfinal opponent on Saturday, know what it is like to battle a fellow top-10 team in the playoffs. They know what it is like to go on the road in the postseason. They know what it is like to win a playoff game decided in the final minute.
Linfield did it last week.
The Wildcats, No. 7 in the nation in the most recent D3football.com Top 25 Poll, which was released on Nov. 13, took down No. 1 seed St. John’s in frigid temperatures on the road last week, winning the closely-contested second-round matchup 31-28, thanks to a late field goal from kicker Andrew Starkel.
The road does not get any easier this week, with another powerhouse program on the schedule in UMHB. But the Wildcats have certainly emerged battle-tested.
“I believe in our guys,” Linfield head coach Joseph Smith told reporters Wednesday. “I think we’re going to compete with anybody. They’re going to play with everything they have. I have no question about our desire and competitiveness. Our guys will rise to the challenge.”
The Crusaders pose a number of challenges for Linfield in “every phase” of the game, according to Smith, specifically on defense. UMHB ranks fifth in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of just 210.4 yards per game, and boasts a veteran core of linebackers in Mikkah Hackett, Akeem Jackson and Jacob Mueller. Not to mention the capability of safety Jefferson Fritz, who logged his first interception of the season last week, and the always-consistent defensive line, led by E’Monte Smith. Smith has recorded 9.5 sacks this season.
“The No. 1 matchup that concerns me is the tremendous defensive front and linebackers and secondary that Mary Hardin-Baylor has,” Smith said. “They’re exceptional on defense and certainly that’s a matchup that has our full attention as well as their great special teams play. They’re tremendously talented in really every phase of special teams. I expect every facet of our team to be challenged greatly. Our goal is to make it the same for them.”
Creating challenges for UMHB begins with finding weaknesses in the Crusaders’ system. That, in and of itself, may prove to be a challenge for Smith and his staff as they put together a game plan of their own prior to the seventh postseason meeting between the programs.
“They’re difficult to find if they are there,” Smith said when asked about UMHB’s weak points. “They play solid defense, they don’t give up many big plays, and they have tremendous speed to negate plays that do pop. They typically stay in front of the chains. They’re difficult to move the football on, without question.”
But the Wildcats have offensive weapons of their own to combat the Crusaders’ sound defensive play, led by senior quarterback Wyatt Smith. The son of the head coach, Smith played against UMHB the last time these two programs squared off in 2017, with the Cru earning a 24-0 victory. That was with two games under his belt. Now, with 38 games of experience, the 6’0, 200 lb Smith has tossed 40 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 11 starts this season, tallying 3,275 passing yards in the process.
“There’s no question that experience is a pivotal tool, if you will, in the maturation of a quarterback,” Smith said of Wyatt’s play. “Wyatt is probably a better runner than he was [in 2017] and he just knows the system even better, having led it for three or four years.”
Smith also noted the major change that has occurred in the Linfield offense since the last time the Cru and Wildcats met on the gridiron. In 2017, Linfield was more of a run-first team, with a good number of play action passes. The offense is “more balanced” now, according to the head coach, something evident by the team’s first-down breakdown of this season. 95 of Linfield’s first-downs have been gained on the ground, along with 163 through the air.
The offensive line, anchored by the play of senior center Matt Metcalf and senior guard Julien Sears, both First-Team All-NWC selections, has been critical in that success. The battle in the trenches is expected to be a key storyline throughout the playoff contest, with UMHB’s physical defensive line facing the Linfield offensive line. And the matchup between the UMHB offensive line against Linfield’s defensive front will play no small role, either.
“Line play will be paramount in this game,” Smith said. “There’s no question about it. From having played UMHB in the past, we know they’re going to be physical and explosive upfront on defense. And that [UMHB] offensive line will move you.”
By this point, both teams are seasoned, with playoff wins to show for it, and can see the road to Canton, Ohio and the Stagg Bowl looming closer. These two opponents are familiar, and there is a mutual respect for one another.
“We’ve played them so much,” Smith said of UMHB. “We played them five times in three years for a while, so we have a great deal of familiarity with their program.
“Mary Hardin Baylor is without question the classiest, do-it-the-right-way, whatever adjective you want to use, as a host and as a program,” Smith said. “Coach Fredenburg even helped us find a place to eat Thursday night. I publicly want to say I’m really impressed with the way Mary Hardin-Baylor does things and I’m very appreciative.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked as a sportswriter since 2016 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.