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.
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By Keith McMillan

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.