NCAA Division-III Semi-Finals: Wildcats v. Tommies
NCAA Division-III Football Playoffs
No. 2 Linfield Wildcats (12-0) vs. No. 3 St. Thomas Tommies (13-0)
The NCAA Division-III football semi-finals are truly going to be one for the ages, and this matchup between Linfield and St. Thomas has all the makings of a true classic. The two teams are very evenly matched, with the Tommies ranked second in points scored and second in points allowed, with Linfield is right behind them in points scored and just three places behind them in points allowed. The Wildcats have allowed slightly less yards per game and are averaging just 40-yards less per contest. This is an incredible matchup on paper that should be an exciting one.
The big wild card in this contest is going to be the quarterback position for Linfield. Sam Riddle sat out last week’s huge come from behind victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor, but QB Tom Knecht proved he is up to the task of taking the reins of this offense and delivering just as potent of an attack.
Ranked No. 2 and No. 3 entering the playoffs, this is going to be an exciting affair and either team is capable of winning the National Championship.
How They Got Here:
Linfield rolled through an undefeated season in the Northwest Conference (NWC), going 9-0, and never really being challenged in any contest. The closest margin of victory during the regular season was 28, and they held their opponents to 1o-points or fewer in all but one of their victories.
The Wildcats opened the first round of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs with a 48-10 victory over Whitworth. Whitworth took the early 3-0 lead, then watched Linfield take complete control of the game by rattling off 41 straight points on their way to a 48-10 victory. It was the second time they had beaten Whitworth this season. Quarterback Sam Riddle had 4-touchdown passes.
Their Round 2 opponent was Cortland State, who gave the Wildcats everything they could handle. The Red Dragons trailed by just four at the half, but Linfield took over coming out of the intermission, scoring 24 unanswered points on their way to a 38-22 win. Riddle left the game with a foot injury, but Knecht took over and was quite impressive, throwing for two scores in the victory.
Last weekend the Wildcats took on No. 10 ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor. With Riddle out, the Crusaders jumped out a huge lead heading into half-time, 28-14. Linfield seemed to have no answers, but Knecht was absolutely brilliant in the second half. The senior engineered three straight scoring drives to give the Wildcats the 35-28 lead, with the final touchdown pass being the second straight touchdown toss to Brian Balsiger. The Crusaders tied the score just 68-seconds later on an 85-yard touchdown pass from Zach Anderson to DeNerian Thomas. That put the ball in Knecht’s hands. He moved the offense 33-yards setting up a 32-yard field goal attempt by Michael Metter, who drilled it as time expired to send the Linfield Wildcats to the semi-finals.
The St. Thomas Tommies have been just as dominate this season. St. Thomas rolled through the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, posting a 10-0 record during the regular season. The Tommies scored at last 51-points in seven of their games, and held opponents under 10 on seven different occasions. They were an absolute juggernaut behind running back Jordan Roberts, who led the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns heading into the playoffs.
In the first round of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs, St. Thomas welcomed La Verne to St. Paul. The Tommies dominated the game, jumping out to a 21-0 lead by half, as Roberts scored the first two touchdowns of the contest. Quarterback John Gould helped to lead the attack, throwing for 310-yards and 2-touchdowns, and both Charlie Dowdle and Nick Waldvogel had over 100-yards receiving.
In Round 2 St. Thomas took on conference rival St. John’s, but the results were the same. The Tommies jumped out to a 22-0 lead as Roberts, again, had two touchdown runs to help stake his team to the early lead. The defense was absolutely awesome, holding the Johnnies to 260-yards of total offense, intercepting two passes and sacking their quarterback three times.
Last week, No. 7 Wabash came to St. Paul, and got the same kind of treatment that previous playoff opponents had received. St. Thomas got on the board first when Waldvogel returned a Little Giants punt 48-yards for the score. Gould found Dowdle for a 28-yard touchdown that extended the lead to 14. That culminated a 98-yard drive that took 7:07 off of the clock. The Tommies would extend their lead to 38-0 before finally winning 38-7. Dowdle had a touchdown reception and a TD run, and the Tommies defense held the Little Giants to 226-yards of offense.
Rankings: (National Rankings in Each Category Are in Parenthesis)
St. Thomas Tommies
Offense: Passing: 288.0 (26) Rushing: 248.0 (22) Total Offense: 536.0 (4) Points Per Game: 53.6 (2)
Defense: Passing: 133.7 (3) Rushing: 83.5 (10) Total Defense: 217.2 (3) Points Allowed Per Game: 9.3 (2)
Offense: Passing: 297.8 (18) Rushing: 198.9 (65) Total Offense: 496.8 (17) Points Per Game: 50.4 (3)
Defense: Passing: 140.1 (4) Rushing: 76.8 (7) Total Defense: 216.9 (2) Points Allowed Per Game: 10.7 (5)
Note: The Tommies players are listed first in each comparison
Quarterbacks: John Gould vs. Sam Riddle, Tom Knecht
Gould has put up impressive numbers this year, throwing for 2,796-yards and 25-touchdowns, but the number that is most impressive is 16. The senior took over the starting job last season with three games left and won all of them. He is 13-0 this season, giving him a 16-1 career mark, with his only loss coming in the first round of last year’s playoffs when his attempt to rally the team fell just short. This guy is a flat out winner, and his ability to find guys to keep the chains moving is amazing to say the least.
Riddle has proven to be a winner himself, and he has the numbers to back it up. The senior led his team to the semi-finals last season where they fell to eventual champion Wisconsin-Whitewater, and he clearly would love the opportunity to lead his team again, but that may not be possible.
If he cannot go, Knecht proved that he is quite a capable backup. Knecht has completed 71.3 percent of his passes this season with 11 touchdowns in just 101-attempts. He is an incredibly efficient quarterback who has the complete confidence of the coaching staff.
Runnings Backs: Jordan Roberts, Trettel Tucker, Jack Kaiser vs. Spencer Payne, Tavon Willis
Both Roberts and Kaiser were hurt in last week’s victory over Wabash, but Roberts did return to score a touchdown later in the contest. Roberts is fifth in the country in rushing with 1,701 yards, and his 29-touchdowns ranks his first. He is just a beast between the tackles and is quite difficult to pull down once he gets going. Trettel scored 7 TDs and rushed for 519-yards on just 87-carries, and is deadly in the red zone and as a blocker. Kaiser scored eight times and rushed for 365-yards.
Payne gets overlooked at times because of how good Riddle is, but he is as tough of a runner as they come. The senior rushed for 1,074-yards and 8 TDs, while posting an impressive 6.8 yards per carry average. Payne also led the team in receiving, making 42-catches for 528-yards. Willis gives a different kind of look and can move the ball as well, gaining 480-yards and scoring 4-touchdowns.
Advantage: The health of Roberts is a question, but even at 80 percent he is a top five back. St. Thomas
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Nick Waldvogel, Charlie Dowdle, Jack Gilliland Ryan Bradley vs. Erick Douglas, Johnny Carroll, Brian Balsiger, Eric Igbinoba
Waldvogel can literally do it all. The junior returns punts and kicks, can play tailback if needed, and makes catches, leading the team with 60-receptions. Waldvogel has great hands and finds ways to get open when the Tommies need a first down. At 6-4 238, it is hard to figure out how Dowdle always seems to get missed by defenses so he can make big plays. The senior TE leads the teams in yards receiving (782) and touchdowns (9). His 21.7 yards per catch average shows that once he has the ball he knows how to turn a small gain into a large one. Gilliland is the deep threat of the team (18.6 ypc) as is Bradley (18.7 ypc).
The Wildcats do not boast an elite receiver. They just have a lot of guys that can make plays. Douglas made 32-catches for 501-yards and Carroll also made 32-receptions. He leads the team in touchdown receptions (9), followed by Igbinoba who has seven to go along with 508-yards receiving. Six different guys caught at least four TD passes, showing that anyone on the field is capable of getting the ball thrown their way and making a play.
Advantage: St. Thomas
Offensive Line: Richie Donovan, Zach Brennan, David Simmet, Will Hilbert, Stefan Sauer vs. Jacob Hanke, Stephen Nnabue, Eric Pitassi, Kela Grace, Thaddeus Cox
When you have one of the best running backs in the nation the offensive line is clearly doing something right and that is especially true for St. Thomas. This is a huge group led by Simmet who is 6-9 350. In fact, the smallest player on the line, Hilbert, is 6-5 292, which is bigger than all five Wildcats starters. They are formidable and are going to make it tough for the Linfield defenders to shake blocks to make plays.
The Wildcats have one of the most athletic lines in all of Division-III. It is not a huge group, as senior Jacob Hanke is the largest of the group at 6-4, 290, but they are smart, tough, and make holes for Payne. This is a well-coached line that is going to be a big factor in this game.
Advantage: St. Thomas
Defensive Line: Ryan Winter, Anthony King-Foreman, Eric Sutton vs. Asa Schwartz, Ty Farber, Zach Grate, Alex Hoff
This is a battle of different schemes, as the Tommies play a 3-4 and the Wildcats a 4-3. In this setting the St. Thomas three have to take on a lot of blockers to set the stage for their linebackers and, for most players, this would diminish their numbers, but these three are gold. The group has combined for 17.5-sacks and are incredible at disrupting the pass attack of opponents. They also play the run exceptionally well.
For the second straight season, Hoff proved to be one of the best pass rushers in the nation, recording 15-sacks and 24 tackles for a loss. He also recovered five fumbles and his tackling technique is as solid as it gets. Schwartz is an outstanding complement to Hoff, who also has a nose for the quarterback (6 sacks). Teams try to run away from Hoff only to find that Schwartz can hurt them as well. Farber and Grate are outstanding up the middle.
Linebackers: Tim McClanahan, Jesse Addo, Alex Seering, Steve Harrell vs. Jake Reimer, Eli Biondine, Keanu Yamamoto
Harrell leads the team in tackles and is second in sacks, and the amazing thing is that the sophomore is just learning to play the game. He has been working off of pure instinct until arriving at St. Thomas and now is establishing himself as one of the best inside linebackers in the country. Addo leads the team in sacks (7.5), and simply makes plays. This is an outstanding group of linebackers that are extremely athletic and can all play the run, rush the quarterback, or drop back into pass coverage.
Reimer, Biondine and Yamamoto were 1, 2 and 4 on the Wildcats in tackles. They are a very dynamic group that defends the run well but also can get out into pass coverage and make plays. Reimer not only led the team in tackles but he also added 6-sacks, and Yamamoto intercepted two passes. Yamamoto plays more of a rover rather than a true linebacker, and he has the size and speed to play all over the field.
Defensive Backs: Trace Adams, Jordan Young, Isaac Seering, Mozus Ikuenobe vs. Kyle Belcher, Kennedy Johnson, Skylor Elgarico, Mikey Arkans
The combination of Young and Ikuenobe only have five total interceptions, but that is with good reason – teams don’t like to throw at them. The two cover as well as anyone can ask, and they have speed to catch up should they need to. Both also defend the run well. Seering and Adams are both solid at the safety position. Both are hard hitters who are also smart and great leaders.
Arkans is a ball-hawk who has the ability to turn a game around. He leads Linfield with 4-interceptions and 7-pass breakups. Elgarico is a hard hitter, who is smart and finds ways to get his hat into the game. Johnson and Belcher are quality corners who don’t get challenged often.
The special team’s units for the Tommies are as good as it gets. Coach Glenn Caruso will use a lot of fakes and challenge his opponents, but he also can get big plays in the return game. Waldvogel is an incredible return man as Wabash learned last Saturday. He is always a threat to break a long return. Paul Graupner is a solid kicker, hitting 7-11 field goal attempts and 71-74 extra points. Pete Fitzsimmons is solid punter. Also, teams should not sleep on John Gould punting. The QB has a 42.7 yards per attempt average in nine punts.
Michael Metter has been solid for the Wildcats as well, making 13 of 22 kicks, but he has shown some leg as well, making 5-10 from beyond 40-yards, including a season high 47-yarder against George Fox. Kevin McClean has done a great job on punts, averaging 37.2 yards per attempt and he has 11 downed inside the 20. Johnson returns both kickoffs and punts. His kickoff return average is acceptable, but his punt returns make him one of the best in the country. He has a 15.2 yards per return average with 3-touchdowns.
Advantage: St. Thomas
Coaches: Glenn Caruso vs. Joseph Smith
Coach Glenn Caruso has quickly built himself quite a legacy at St. Thomas. The Tommies head coach is 85-13 (86.7 winning percentage) in his eighth season with the team. This is his third trip to the Division-III semi-finals, and a win would put St. Thomas in the National Championship game for the second time in four seasons. This is the team’s sixth trip to the post-season with Coach Caruso at the helm. The St. Thomas Coach gets the very most out of his team. His handling of the special teams is legendary in and of itself, and his knowledge of the game is exceptional.
Joseph Smith is in his 10th season as the head coach of the Linfield Wildcats. He has actually been a player or coach at the school for 25 seasons. As the head coach he has put together quite a run, posting a 94-17 (84.7) record. This is his team’s seventh straight trip to the playoffs, and they have reached the semi-finals three times, including each of the last two seasons. Coach Smith also serves as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator, and he is a true genius when it comes to designing schemes and leading men.
Advantage: At this point in the season there are no bad coaches remaining. Even
Outlook: This has all the makings of a real good contest. Both teams earned their place in this game, and they appear to be quite evenly matched on paper. If it was going to be a normal Minnesota December Saturday this would be a clear victory for the Tommies, but a positive forecast should allow the Wildcats to move the ball with success. It will still not be enough. Take St. Thomas to jump out to an early lead and then simply smother the Linfield passing attack, 42-24.
By Robert Pannier