NCAA Division-III Football Playoffs, Round 3: Widener vs. Linfield
Matchup: On Saturday at noon Eastern Time the Linfield Wildcats travel nearly 2000 miles to face the Widener Pride in the third round of the NCAA Division-III Football playoffs. This matchup pits the No. 10 Linfield Wildcats against the No. 11 Widener Pride.
How They Got Here:
Widener was 10-0 in the regular season, 9-0 in the Middle Atlantic Conference, where they were conference champions.
The Pride opened the playoffs against the Muhlenberg Mules. This was a very close contest, where Muhlenberg was winning 14-7 after the first quarter, but by half the game was tied at 21. In the third quarter each team added another touchdown making it 28-28 entering the final quarter.
Ryan O’Hara’s 20-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter put Widener back in front. A 1-yard touchdown run by Nick Palladino restored the lead for Muhlenberg. A tackle in the end zone gave the Pride two more points making it 35-33 with just 1:32 left in the game. QB Seth Klein moved the team into position for a 32-yard field goal attempt, which O’Hara made to send the Pride onto the next round.
Klein was 28-47 for 364 yards and 2 TDs in the game. Anthony Davis was his favorite target on the day, recording 114 yards. The defense struggled, yielding 510 yards, but made two interceptions and had two fumble recoveries.
Last weekend the Pride took on Christopher Newport. They fell behind 10-7 early in the second quarter, but then got a 4-yard touchdown pass from Klein to retake the lead, and a 1-yard touchdown run from their quarterback to make it 21-10 heading into the half.
In the third quarter Widener extended their lead on a 1-yard run from Terrant Morrison and a 14-yard TD pass to Brian DiGiovanni to make it 34-13 at the end of three. When O’Hara added a field goal to start the fourth it looked like the rout was on, but the Captains got two quick touchdowns to cut the deficit to 37-27 with 4:24 left in the game. The defense stepped up, however, forcing two turnovers on downs, and the Pride walked away with the 37-27 win.
Klein had another solid day, passing for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns, while completing 21 of his 29 passes. Davis was his favorite target again, making 13 catches for 146 yards.
Linfield went 8-1 in the regular season, including 6-1 in their own conference. They were the Northwest Conference champions, beating Pacific 59-0 in the title game.
The Wildcats opened the playoffs against Chapman. Linfield scored 28-points in the first quarter on their way to a 55-24 win. After scoring two touchdowns early in the first quarter, Jordan Giza returned a 63-yard punt for a score.
QB Sam Riddle played very well, throwing for 279 yards and 4 touchdowns. He added 62 more on the ground and scored a rushing touchdown as well.
Next up was the No. 2 team in the country, the Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders. The Minor League Sports Report predicted the Linfield upset and that is exactly what happened, as the Wildcats won 31-28.
Linfield scored first when Mikey Arkans recovered a fumble for a touchdown making it 7-0. The Crusaders tied the score, but the Wildcats responded with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard run from Riddle to retake the lead. In the second quarter MHB tied the game again, but just before half Michael Metter kicked a 46-yard field goal to send the Wildcats to the half leading 17-14.
The Crusaders took the lead on their first possession of the second half, but halfway through the quarter Riddle hit Erick Douglas for a 57-yard score to put the Wildcats back on top. On their next possession the Wildcats struck again, this time on a 23-yard pass to Charlie Poppen to make it 31-21. The Crusaders scored again just before the end of the third quarter, but then both defenses clamped down, making it a scoreless fourth quarter, and giving Linfield the 31-28 victory.
The biggest play of the fourth quarter came after a fumble by Linfield put the Crusaders at the Wildcats 30-yard line. On fourth and 6 they were able to convert for a first down, and three plays later they were faced with another big down, this time third and 10 at the 18. Zach Anderson went back to pass, but was picked off by Jordan Giza who returned the ball 47-yards. From there the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Riddle had another solid day, going 19-31 for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns. Levi Atringer had 92 yards receiving and Erick Douglass III had 89 yards and a touchdown. The defense recorded four takeaways, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Linfield Offense vs. Widener Defense
Linfield Offense: 47.9 points per game, 216.7 yards rushing per game, 250.3 yards passing per game.
Widener Defense: 15.1 points allowed per game, 61.3 yards rushing allowed per game, 244.1 yards passing allowed per game.
Linfield is a team that would much rather move the ball on the ground. Riddle is no slacker as a thrower, but the bread-n-butt of the team is its running attack. The trouble with defending them is that no one back gets a majority of the carries. In fact, Riddle led the team in carries (103) and finished second on the team in yards (404). He also led them in touchdowns with 12.
Eight different players on this team had at least 136 yards rushing this season, led by Spencer Payne with 452. No matter who is in the backfield, they are all productive. Excluding Riddle, none had a yards per carry average less than 4.4, and that combined group scored 29 touchdowns.
Riddle has proven to be more than just a running quarterback. He is a true duel threat, who passed for 2377 yards and 28 touchdowns. His completion rate is actually quite good at 63.8 percent and he has a passer efficiency rating of 172.0, which is ninth best in the country. He is deadly on the run and will pose a real concern for the Widener defense.
Poppen is by far the favorite target of Riddle. He caught 57 passes, more than twice the next highest number on the team, and has 915 yards and 14 touchdowns. Evan Peterson made 28 catches for 460 yards and 7 touchdowns. Both receivers averaged better than 16 yards per catch.
The Wildcats have an outstanding offensive line, led by OT Steven Schultz. At 6-5, 300 pounds he is a complete load and makes holes. Seniors Kyle Jones and Owen Fritz add experience and toughness to this line.
This may be the best matchup the Pride could ask for. They play especially well against the run, and have playmakers throughout the squad. This is a team that pressures the quarterback and makes things happen. They have 44 sacks this season, 23 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles. Those are just outstanding numbers, and show that if a team makes a mistake, whether it is in their blocking scheme or an errant pass, Widener makes them pay.
Up front they have an outstanding defensive line led by Stacey Sunnerville and Tyler Glover. Both are on the small size, but they are relentless in their pursuit of the quarterback. Sunnerville has 5.5 sacks and Glover leads the team with 10. Brandon Jones added 4.5.
This is an outstanding linebacker corps led by Kevin Burns and Brandon Harper. Burns leads the team with 88 tackles and Harper is second with 85. Both are great at pursuit, and combined they have 7.5 sacks. Burns has also forced three fumbles.
The two cornerbacks to this team may be the best tandem in Division-III. Sean Titus has 9 interceptions and Ameer Sorrell has 6. They have also combined for 11 pass breakups. Teams can try to throw against them, but they should do so at their own peril.
Analysis: This is an outstanding offense that Linfield has, but the edge goes to the Widener defense. Their ability to get after the quarterback and make plays is what has kept them alive in these playoffs. Edge: Widener.
Widener Offense vs. Linfield Defense
Widener Offense: 39.8 points per game, 168.9 yards per game rushing, 285.1yards per game passing.
Linfield Defense: 13.1 points allowed per game, 93.5 yards rushing allowed per game, 133.6 yards passing allowed per game.
Widener QB Seth Klein has had an outstanding season as well, and he is the reason that his team is still in the playoffs. The QB is only a sophomore, but he has shown great maturity with a 169.9 passer efficiency, 13th in the country. His completion rate is 62.1 percent and he has thrown for 3199 yards with 33 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He is not the duel threat that Riddle is, but he is happy to let his arm do the talking.
Morrison is the team’s leading rusher and has shown that he can lead his team when need be. He has 888 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns, plus an outstanding 5.4 yards per carry average. Couve LaFate is more of a short yardage guy, gaining 432 yards and 5 TDs.
Seven players have caught at least 16 passes this season. That is a testament to Klein’s ability to find the open guy. However, Anthony Davis is the player he looks for most often and it shows. The senior has 74 catches for 1223 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 74 catches are 10 more than the next three receivers combined. He is tough to stop, and if he has even a half-step on a defender he will make them play.
This is a young offensive line with no seniors and only two juniors. That is no worry though. They are smart and have size. Four freshman and one of the sophomores are at least 300 pounds, and when they need a yard or two they know this line can get it.
Linfield has shown that they have an outstanding defense of their own. They have recorded 44 sacks, 14 interceptions and 11 fumbles. They know how to pursue plays and make things happen.
This defense is led by defensive lineman Alex Hoff who is a tireless beast. He had 11 sacks on the season despite missing a game early on. He wreaks havoc in the backfield, and at 6-3, 240 he has size. Jeremy Girod combines with Hoff to form a pass rushing machine. He has 4.5 sacks and the two complement each other well.
Jordan Giza and Mike Nardoni cover the middle of the defense with relentless fervor. Giza makes great decisions and is always in plays, and Nardoni can cover and attack the quarterback. He is very versatile and the two are just ball hawks. Add in the play of safety Mikey Arkands and it is clear why this team is so good.
Analysis: The Pride have a very good offense and they have the skill players to make things happen. Like the previous assessment of the Widener defense, I really like the Linfield defense here as well. They, too, make plays and are tough to hold down. Edge: Linfield.
Outlook: There are lots of good reasons to like Widener in this game. They are at home, Linfield is traveling a long way, and they have an outstanding team. Linfield has one as well, and traveling to Mary Hardin-Baylor did not seem to bother them last weekend. Widener’s defense has really struggled in the playoffs, and without the turnovers they would be out. Linfield wins a close one, 28-24.
By Robert Pannier