|There are a bunch of new faces on defense for Linfield this season.
Linfield athletics file photo
By Joe Sager
Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.
“We finally get to hit someone else this week.”
Dakota Smith’s words sum up the collective feeling for Linfield, which finally opens its season Saturday at Carroll College. The senior left tackle is not the only one giddy to get things going after having an off week when most other D-III programs kicked off their campaigns.
“I am excited about it,” Linfield senior wide receiver J.D. Lasswell said. “It’s been too long since our last game time.”
On the flipside, it’s the third game for the Fighting Saints, an NAIA program based in Helena, Montana. They opened with a 19-0 loss at Rocky Mountain College on Aug. 23 and fell to Montana-Western, 16-10, last week.
“It is a unique situation. We’ve talked about it a little as a team,” Lasswell said. “We’re coming in with the mindset that they are going to have some more time than us to be prepared and we have to go out there and do what we can do and execute the best we can. I think that’ll be enough for us.”
One positive for the Wildcats is that they can draw an idea of what to expect from Carroll based on the two games, whereas, Linfield is an unknown commodity to its opponent.
“Sometimes, a team in game three is not the same team as it was in game one,” Linfield head coach Joe Smith said.
That’s why the Wildcats are keeping their main focus on themselves and not looking too deeply into the box scores.
“They don’t have anything on us except for what we did last year. We do have two of their games to look at, but we’re just working on what we can control and our execution and getting our offense down,” Lasswell said. “Our focus isn’t necessarily on them as much as it is on just getting ourselves ready for the season and being a team.”
One disadvantage for Linfield is that it will have to adjust to game speed, while Carroll should be acclimated by now.
“We’re going to have procedural penalties, false starts, substitutional penalties – things that just take game experience to go through,” Joe Smith said. “When you play games, you find some weaknesses you may have in some protections and special teams are always a cause for concern. We tried to scrimmage each other and put in some more live-game situations than we normally do. But, we’ll make our first-game mistakes and battle through it.
“It’ll be nice to be in a great environment, too. Carroll is a very special program. They have a very rich tradition,” he said. “They have an unbelievable environment there.”
He is familiar with it as his daughter, Josie, is a senior nursing student at Carroll.
“The past two years, we’ve played Mary Hardin-Baylor in our first two weeks and I think they are the most talented team in the country. I don’t know who we’d play that has more talent,” Joe Smith said. “This is a scholarship program. They are big and physical. It’ll be a great test for us to see where our pad level is and how our mechanics are. When you play elite talent, it shows you where your mechanics are. We’re pretty excited.”
The Fighting Saints have been an NAIA power with six national titles (2002-05, 2007, 2010) in the past two decades. However, they haven’t had a winning record since 2014. They finished 4-6 the past three seasons.
“Carroll has been such a powerhouse for many years. It’ll be really interesting too see what they have to offer,” Dakota Smith said. “It’ll be a nice challenge. The last two years, we’ve played Mary Hardin-Baylor in the first two weeks; we always love a challenge. We’ll have some kinks to work out, but I think we’ll be able to get the job done.”
While the game has no bearing on either team’s postseason quest, Linfield, which won the 2004 D-III national title, isn’t backing down from the challenge of playing an NAIA power.
“This will be one of the first NAIA teams I’ve gone up against. It’s a new opponent that we get to go up against and we’re champing at the bit for a new challenge,” Lasswell said. “We don’t want to put too much thought into the fact that they are in a different league or anything. We’re just looking at them as our opponent for this week. But, we do have in our mind that we want to show them what we have come Saturday.”
With nine starters back on offense, the Wildcats hope the momentum they generated near the end of 2017 carries over. After falling to Mary Hardin-Baylor in its second game, Linfield won its next eight games. The Wildcats’ season came to an end at 9-2 in the second round of the playoffs at UMHB.
“I think we’re feeling confident,” Dakota Smith said. “We’re still looking to get into a groove and work out those kinks the first and second games might bring. But, I think there will be less kinks just because of the experience of our offense.”
Sophomore Wyatt Smith is back at quarterback after taking over as starter for the final four games last season. Chidubem Nnoli rushed for 1,051 yards. Lasswell hauled in 33 passes for 637 yards. Dakota Smith leads a senior-laden offensive line.
“The offense is veteran and we are all close and we’re just hungry to show people what we have,” Lasswell said. “Last year kind of gave us a taste of what to expect because we were young. Coming in with some experience, I am real confident with our offense, especially with the execution I’ve seen in practice. I think we’ve carried over a lot of chemistry and camaraderie from last year. That’s just leaped us forward this year and made us even more of a cohesive unit.”
Defensively, though, Linfield must find 10 new starters.
“I have absolutely no worries about our defense. Everyone that is on our team has the capability and talent to be playing,” Lasswell said. “Last year, we had a bunch of older guys and veterans that got most of the playing time and the younger guys have been grinding away for the past couple years. They are so hungry to get their opportunity. Everyone on our defense has the capability to do great things. It’ just figuring out who is going to be the best for us and who will bring the most camaraderie as a team and who will make plays for us. I think we are really strong on the defensive side. I think we’ll give a lot of people trouble with that.”
The Wildcats hope that starts at Carroll and continues next week against Redlands before they open Northwest Conference action.
“It’s going to be an interesting two nonconference games,” Dakota Smith said. “Redlands beat George Fox last week and we could possibly see them in the playoffs. These two nonconference games should be good and help us build heading into conference play.”