/playoffs/2012/linfield-happy-to-still-be-here

On Linfield's journey, it's all secondary

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The Linfield defense graduated a bunch of players and lost a key piece to injury but has continued to perform, especially in terms of takeaways.
Linfield athletics photo

By Keith McMillan
D3sports.com

That Linfield is 11-0 and hosting a national quarterfinal is no surprise. From the opening kickoff, the Wildcats were loaded, with a preseason All-American returning on the nation’s best defensive line, plus a star quarterback, running back and kicker.

If there was one uncertainty, it was how Linfield would break in an entire set of new defensive backs in its 4-2-5 scheme, given that All-American Drew Fisher and his starting counterparts each used up their eligibility. Though the road to a December playoff game in McMinnville has been filled with surprises, not all of them pleasant -- such as the injuries to defensive tackle Tyler Steele and running back Josh Hill, the junior-dominated secondary has helped the Wildcats defense improve over last season.

Though Linfield’s defense generated just 17 turnovers in the regular season, they’ve caused 12 in two playoff wins, a big reason why they’re facing 12-0 UW-Oshkosh at home on Saturday.

The defensive line and linebackers again lead the nation in sacks and tackles for losses. That, plus the emergence of the secondary made this year’s defense improve by 30 yards per game overall, and by 50 per game against the pass.

Secondary coach Brandon Hazenberg said that’s no surprise at all.

“We knew when we recruited these guys as freshmen they were all talented. Our expectations aren’t going to drop off because we graduated a great group,” he said. “Who says we have to take a step back? Who says we can’t be better than they were?”

And so came the challenge for safety Colin Forman, monsterback Kyle Wright, rover Mike Nardoni and four cornerbacks who have each started at least once and played in at least eight games.

“We graduated [five] seniors in the secondary last year who were all three-year starters,” said Wright. “We were confident though. We’re a tight-knit group. We’ve worked hard and this is our time now.”

That was no more evident than in the 30-14 second-round win against North Central, when cornerbacks Michael Link and Brandon Funk combined for three interceptions and four pass break-ups, while Nardoni and Wright each had a tackle for a loss and linebacker Dominique Forrest returned an interception 73 yards for a touchdown.

“We knew we were going to have to make some plays to win in the playoffs,” said Forman. Both he and Wright referenced the defense’s mentality that it doesn’t depend on the offense to turn the tide, despite the fact that Mickey Inns has passed for 3,041 yards and 29 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and the offense averages 41.8 points per game.

 “We can’t worry about what the offense is going to do,” Wright said. “Our expectation is to go out and win the game.”

With five turnovers in the 27-24 first-round win against Pacific Lutheran, including a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Tyler Robitaille, the Wildcats have done their fair share.

But as they should in a 32-team, five-week postseason, the challenges get increasingly difficult. UW-Oshkosh presents an offense that is hurry-up – not allowing opponents to substitute defensive personnel – features motion, option plays and power run sets – sometimes forcing a defense to put nine in the box – and is led by quarterback Nate Wara, who is both mobile and an accurate passer.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever faced before,” said Wright.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us on Saturday,” said Hazenberg, who says you could probably look through the box score of any quarterfinal or semifinal game and find where the losing team gave up a pass play of 50 yards or more.

Defending the Titans means Linfield’s secondary will have to be disciplined against the big pass play, but also effective coming up and stopping the run. They’ve done both well enough so far, allowing 12 catches and 205 receiving yards to Pacific Lutheran’s Kyle Warner but no play longer than 36 yards, and 192 rushing yards to North Central’s Nick Kukuc, but on 25 carries, with none longer than 32 yards.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that most of this season’s secondary contributors were key special teamers who traveled to Linfield’s second-round 24-17 double-overtime loss at St. Thomas in 2010 and the 49-34 loss last year in the same round at Wesley. Instead of ignoring the reasons why the Wolverines scored 42 consecutive points in the second half of the 2011 loss, the Wildcats embrace the painful memory as a learning experience.

“We went into the half at Wesley riding high and mighty,” Forman said. “When you look back, you realize anything can happen, and you have to keep playing hard for the full 60 minutes. Most teams haven’t experienced that first-hand like we have.”

This unit hasn’t compared itself to Linfield’s 2004 champions, 2009 semifinalists or previous teams, says Hazenberg, so much as it has been conscious to enjoy the journey. The coach, who also heads special teams and recruiting efforts, says he recently during practice mentioned how lucky the team was to have nice weather and a December game at Maxwell Field, locally known as “the ‘Catdome”

Rather than dwell on teams who played in years past, Wright talked about winning to earn another week together, and Forman mentioned how much nicer it is to be playing in Oregon in front of family than boarding a plane for a six-hour ride to Delaware.

Hazenberg also encouraged the group, which includes Link, Funk, Chad Coburn – a one-time community college baseball player, the team’s top kick returner and a player who’s rushed for three touchdowns -- and jack-of-all-trades Ian Zarosinski, to look at the previous Linfield secondary and see all the good they did, but see their mistakes as well.

“This entire group loves to grind, to watch film, dive into the game plan,” says Hazenberg, calling the previous bunch “old school” players who couldn’t wait for game day.

Having a group that set the bar high gives the current secondary something to aspire to, and with a chance to beat UW-Oshkosh on Saturday, they can begin to write their own history.

Sep. 23: All times Eastern
Final
at Framingham State 50, Massachusetts Maritime 7
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Muhlenberg 56, at Juniata 40
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at Dean 25, Becker 10
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Salisbury 27, at TCNJ 7
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MIT 38, at Catholic 21
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Merchant Marine 56, at Maine Maritime 31
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at Hobart 34, Endicott 17
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at Morrisville State 44, Nichols 22
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at Delaware Valley 27, Stevenson 7
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at Albright 9, Widener 7
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Christopher Newport 16, at Montclair State 8
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at Westminster (Pa.) 41, Bethany 14
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Middlebury 41, at Bowdoin 14
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Williams 24, at Colby 7
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Amherst 36, at Hamilton 6
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Ursinus 35, at Moravian 17
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Trinity (Conn.) 51, at Bates 0
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at LaGrange 38, Brevard 28
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Geneva 33, at Thiel 24
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at Plymouth State 37, Mass-Dartmouth 7
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Kean 28, at Southern Virginia 14
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Frostburg State 24, at Rowan 10
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Union 17, at Curry 14
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at Carnegie Mellon 37, Thomas More 17
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Lycoming 44, at King's 41
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at Western New England 21, Husson 14
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Johns Hopkins 41, at Dickinson 10
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at DePauw 51, Wooster 24
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at Ohio Wesleyan 37, Allegheny 21
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at Misericordia 43, Wilkes 14
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at Alfred 45, Rochester 7
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Wesley 66, at William Paterson 0
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at N.C. Wesleyan 35, Maryville (Tenn.) 25
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Huntingdon 31, at Ferrum 28
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at McDaniel 27, Gettysburg 20
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at Buffalo State 33, RPI 21
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Franklin and Marshall 27, at Susquehanna 24
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at Denison 45, Oberlin 17
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 10, Westminster (Mo.) 7
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at Eureka 44, Crown 20
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at Lebanon Valley 24, FDU-Florham 14
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at Heidelberg 47, John Carroll 21
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at Ohio Northern 35, Otterbein 7
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at Mount Union 55, Baldwin Wallace 7
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at Rose-Hulman 37, Defiance 14
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at Marietta 49, Muskingum 25
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Franklin 59, at Bluffton 30
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at Hanover 64, Anderson 21
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Mount St. Joseph 31, at Manchester 14
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Worcester State 34, at Westfield State 10
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Coast Guard 13, at Norwich 9
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at Fitchburg State 31, Bridgewater State 29
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Wittenberg 48, at Kenyon 11
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at Wabash 25, Hiram 21
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North Central (Ill.) 51, at Millikin 21
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at Millsaps 17, Sewanee 13
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at Rhodes 35, Birmingham-Southern 9
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at Hendrix 36, Austin 24
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at Martin Luther 34, Greenville 20
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at Trinity (Texas) 41, Chapman 35
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at Loras 73, Buena Vista 34
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at Wartburg 30, Washington U. 20
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at Gustavus Adolphus 51, Hamline 7
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Augsburg 48, at Carleton 28
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at Bethel 64, St. Olaf 7
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at Luther 21, Dubuque 17
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at Central 52, Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Simpson 38, at Coe 33
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Wheaton (Ill.) 40, at Elmhurst 15
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St. Norbert 66, at Grinnell 13
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at Knox 13, Ripon 6
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at MacMurray 32, Iowa Wesleyan 14
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Hardin-Simmons 63, at Howard Payne 3
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Southwestern 37, at Louisiana College 34
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Monmouth 26, at Macalester 0
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at St. Thomas 20, St. John's 17
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
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at Springfield 42, WPI 10
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at Cornell 55, Beloit 36
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at Brockport 28, Utica 14
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at Hartwick 24, St. John Fisher 21
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at UW-La Crosse 41, Carroll 6
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at St. Scholastica 37, Minnesota-Morris 3
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at George Fox 44, UW-Eau Claire 0
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at Western Connecticut 37, Salve Regina 23
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at UW-Stevens Point 41, Adrian 28
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at Wesleyan 24, Tufts 17
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at Averett 35, Methodist 6
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at Berry 28, Centre 14
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at Case Western Reserve 56, Waynesburg 21
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at Grove City 24, St. Vincent 14
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at Illinois Wesleyan 18, North Park 0
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 50, Texas Lutheran 7
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at UW-Platteville 56, Lakeland 22
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Carthage 55, at Augustana 14
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Chicago 28, at Illinois College 7
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at Sul Ross State 35, McMurry 7
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at Wilmington 37, Capital 30
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Lake Forest 42, at Lawrence 26
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at East Texas Baptist 79, Belhaven 40
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Arizona Christian 56, at Whittier 38
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Sep. 28: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Shenandoah at Randolph-Macon
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Sep. 23: All times Eastern
Final
at Delaware Valley 27, Stevenson 7
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Wesley 66, at William Paterson 0
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at Alfred 45, Rochester 7
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Final
Johns Hopkins 41, at Dickinson 10
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Frostburg State 24, at Rowan 10
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at Heidelberg 47, John Carroll 21
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Final
at Mount Union 55, Baldwin Wallace 7
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Final
Wittenberg 48, at Kenyon 11
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at Wabash 25, Hiram 21
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Hardin-Simmons 63, at Howard Payne 3
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North Central (Ill.) 51, at Millikin 21
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Final
Wheaton (Ill.) 40, at Elmhurst 15
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Final
at St. Thomas 20, St. John's 17
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
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Final
at Brockport 28, Utica 14
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Final
at Case Western Reserve 56, Waynesburg 21
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at Illinois Wesleyan 18, North Park 0
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at UW-Platteville 56, Lakeland 22
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Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 50, Texas Lutheran 7
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