November 27, 2013

For trip to Linfield, Tigers must adjust on the fly

More news about: Hampden-Sydney | Linfield
Holton Walker
Hampden-Sydney's Holton Walker had 16 catches for 268 yards in Round 1, but faces a significantly tougher defense in Round 2.
Red Rocket photography

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

The Hampden-Sydney Tigers are rewriting the record books while winning big game after big game. Arguably the biggest win in the program's 119-year history, the first victory in six attempts in the NCAA playoffs, earned the Tigers a trip across the country to face perennial powerhouse Linfield. While many are writing off the Tigers as the next team to finish its season in the "Catdome," Hampden-Sydney is excited for the challenge.

"This is a great opportunity for us, against a very good team," Tigers quarterback Nash Nance said. "This is a business trip, and it will bring our team a lot closer together. We're staying focused, but we're still going to enjoy it."

Nance is no stranger to boarding a plane with his teammates for a long road trip into a hostile environment. He spent two years as a backup at the University of Tennessee before transferring to Hampden-Sydney. He has flown from Knoxville to "The Swamp" in Gainesville, Fla. and "Death Valley" in Baton Rouge, La. The Catdome -- formally Maxwell Field -- in McMinnville, Ore. is next on his itinerary. Another flight with teammates was unexpected when he transferred to a Division III program. Such flights are rare, but usually mean one thing: you're playing for one of the last teams standing in the playoffs.

"This is something that I'm used to, coming from the SEC," said Nance of the long flight. "Still, this is something really special that we'll be able to tell our kids and grandkids about. It's going to be a fun atmosphere."

The Tigers have been playing with their backs against the wall since losing an ODAC game to Shenandoah on Oct. 26. Hampden-Sydney crushed then league-leading Guilford on the road, beat defending ODAC champion Washington and Lee at home, then held off rival Randolph-Macon on the road by stopping a two-point conversion attempt and recovering an onside kick with 95 seconds to play.

"From the Guilford game, it was win or go home," said wide receiver Holton Walker. "We closed the season having to beat three good teams. That definitely prepared us for the playoffs."

Then, the Tigers earned a favorable playoff draw, hosting USA South champion Maryville. The Scots were making their first playoff appearance, but put up a fight in one of the opening round's most entertaining battles. Hampden-Sydney prevailed, 42-34. Walker, the leading receiver in the nation this year with 141.7 yards per game, keyed the Tigers' first playoff win. He racked up 268 yards on a 16 receptions (both school records) and scored three touchdowns. Walker had 224 yards and all three of his scores in the first half. Nance and Walker have built up a solid rapport in their two seasons and counting together.

"I trust him and he trusts me," said Walker. "We've become good friends, we communicate every single day, and our chemistry continues to grow."

"Having targets like Michael Mey and Holton Walker, you trust that you can get them the ball and they can do some special things with it," said Nance. "I think that that trust works both ways."

The offense that averages 447.4 yards per game will face its toughest task of the season, by far. Linfield gives up just 250.3 yards per game, seventh in the nation. The Wildcats also boast the No. 7 scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 12 points per game. The Tigers average 35.5 points per game.

"We've seen some good defenses, but none as good as Linfield," said Walker.

Linfield's defense has overcome several obstacles this year to remain among the nation's best. Projected starters Marq Randall, a defensive tackle, and Brynnan Hyland, a defensive end, have missed the entire season. Defensive tackle Tyler Steele suffered an injury in the regular season finale that will keep him out of the playoffs. Hyland and Steele were both preseason All-Americans. Hyland was a 2012 first team All-American defensive end. He has been helping his young replacements get up to speed all season.

"I'm not surprised, because they were all good players to start with," said Hyland. "They have really been able to slow down and just have fun out there."

Sophomore Alex Hoff went from long snapper to first-team all-conference defensive end. Defensive tackle Jeremy Girod emerged as a force in the interior, leading the Wildcats with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss. He entered the year as one of six men at his position with experience. Only three remain healthy.

Holton Walker
Jeremy Girod has helped the Wildcats overcome huge losses on their defensive line.
Linfield athletics photo

"The morale here at Linfield is that people always step up to the occasion," said Girod. "When it's your shot, you make it worth it."

Steele and Hyland are serving as extra coaches on the sideline, while defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Jackson Vaughan focuses on the defense as a whole. Their influence has had a positive impact on the always-aggressive Linfield front.

"We may be undersized, but we are fast and athletic," said Girod. "The key is the mentality of our defensive line and how we're coached to just get after it. It's a lot of fun to play here."

The defensive linemen are more than just gap pluggers in Linfield's system. The Wildcats' 4-2-5 scheme features stunts that allow every linemen to make big plays.

"We play quick and we're put in position by the defensive scheme to take the brakes off and just go," said Hyland. "Also, we're prepared mentally, which allows you to just get in position and play. We can throw a lot of different looks at people and our guys are all really versatile."

The Wildcats rank fourth in the nation in turnover margin, and turnovers have been Hampden-Sydney's weakness all year. Nance has thrown 14 interceptions and the Tigers have lost nine fumbles. The key matchup will be Nance's ability to make good decisions under pressure from the Wildcats' front seven.

"I don't think we've seen a defensive line as big and athletic as Linfield's," said Nance. "We'll have to keep them honest with our play calling and I have to do a good job of recognizing their coverages and fronts. We have to take what they give us."

The underdogs are not lacking confidence. In some ways, it may help that they have no experience of playing in the Catdome. It may also help that the majority of Linfield students will be home for the Thanksgiving break. Traveling approximately 2,854 miles on Thanksgiving is more than worth it. For the Tigers, this is just the next in a growing streak of make-or-break games.

"I get to spend Thanksgiving with my team. We're only one of 16 teams able to do that," said Walker. "We're going out to play an established team. That will be good for us."

"We think we're one of the best teams they've faced, too," said Nance.

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