November 28th, 2019 8:30am
And then there was one…
Last week I predicted that the GLVC would go 1-1 in the first round of the playoffs. While I was correct in the conference outcome, I was 0-2 in predicting how the games would turn out. Lindenwood traveled down to Arkadelphia and stunned the fifth ranked Ouachita Tigers while the Greyhounds offense struggled to keep up with Central Missouri.
Before we get into this week’s fun, let’s recap how last Saturday went down.
Lindenwood traveled south to Arkadelphia as a major underdog to number five ranked Ouachita Baptist. The undefeated Tigers boasted one of the best defenses in the country and a relentless rushing attack that helped them control the time of possession and achieve a D2 best 62.5% third down conversion rate. However, the Lions were riding a seven-game winning streak and determined to remain hot as Cade Brister and Nash Sutherlin systematically picked apart the Ouachita defense. Brister ended the day going 28 of 36 for 273 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 96 yards and a score. Sutherlin added another 81 rushing yards and a touchdown in addition to 76 receiving yards on eight receptions. Lindenwood got significant contributions from their special teams’ units as well. Early in the fourth quarter the Lions answered a long touchdown pass by the Tigers to take the lead with a 97-yard kickoff return by Spencer Redd. Brett Garner was 5-5 on extra point attempts and 2-2 on field goals, including the game winner that he kicked through from 30 yards out with 1:24 remaining. It was the Lindenwood defense that sealed the deal as Jordan Perry intercepted a long pass attempt by Ouachita quarterback Brayden Brazeal with just over a minute to go in the game.
Indianapolis traveled seven hours west to face off against Harlon Hill Trophy nominee Brooke Bolles and MIAA co-champion Central Missouri. Both the Mules and Greyhounds came into the game boasting a some of the best offenses in D2. Early on, it seemed like UIndy had their long passing game clicking as TJ Edwards connected with Ryan Topper on a 32-yard pass for the first score of the afternoon. However, as the Greyhound wide receivers continued to get behind the Mule secondary with relative ease, TJ Edwards was uncharacteristically inaccurate overthrowing at least five open receivers running deep routes. This was especially unfortunate for the Hounds as their defense had managed to slow the Mule offense down early forcing two field goals and a punt on their first three possessions of the game. Central Missouri would eventually find their groove as Brooke Bolles went 27 of 37 for 377 yards and three touchdowns. Mule wide receiver Shane Wyatt had a monster day hauling in nine receptions for 176 yards and two touchdowns. The Greyhounds remained in the game throughout with stout run defense (87 yards on 33 attempts, 2.6 ypc) and an effective running game of their own (172 yards on 32 attempts, 5.6 ypc). Unfortunately for Indianapolis, they found themselves struggling on third down, only going 3-13 on the afternoon. In the end, the inconsistency and misfires doomed the Greyhounds as the Mules pulled ahead by two scores in the fourth quarter and never looked back.
For the first time this season, the Lions will be traveling to a place that players and coaches on the team are familiar with. While Lindenwood has traveled to Southwest Baptist before, the last time before this year was 2013, long before any of the current players or coaches arrived. Much to the delight of the Northwest players, coaches, and fans, Lindenwood’s win over Ouachita means that they’ll get to spend another Saturday at home. The Bearcats are one of two teams that Lindenwood failed to defeat during their stint in the MIAA; the other is Central Missouri. Many are also sure to point out that none of the games have been close in the series either with the closest game being a 0-19 win by the Bearcats in 2017.
However, this is a Lindenwood team that is believing in themselves and one that’s learned how to win. Will that be enough to overcome the Bearcat (Monkey) on their back?
While the Lindenwood offense hinges on the performance of Cade Brister, it’s not a situation where he is tasked to shoulder the entire burden. He has a variety of weapons to lean on and has proven willingness to trust any of them throughout the year. This may be Brister’s biggest area of development. Last year he was largely dependent on Erik Henneman. This year four different Lion receivers have at least 50 catches and over 500 yards receiving. Five different players have caught at least four touchdown passes. In the running game, Brister is certainly a factor with 539 yards rushing; however, Nash Sutherlin has quietly put together a very productive season on the ground with 821 rushing yards, five touchdowns, and a 5.7 yards per carry average.
None of this would be possible without the performance of the Lindenwood offensive line. This is a group that’s taken some beatings over the years; both on the field and among critics. However, as the year has progressed, so has their confidence, continuity, and execution. During their first seven games of the season the Lions averaged only 111 yards on the ground per game. Over the past five games they’ve averaged 171 including two games with over 200 yards on the ground. They’ve also dropped their sacks per game from 3.5 to 2.4 within the same respective time frames. Last week’s performance was probably their most impressive as they allowed only one sack to a Ouachita team that finished second in the GAC in total sacks. If you watched the game, you know that Brister often had four to six seconds to find his receivers, which is a relative eternity.
This week the Lindenwood offensive line will face their toughest test of the season, as the strength of the stingy Bearcat defense lies along the defensive line; and it’s one of the best in the country. The group is lead by MIAA defensive player of the year Spencer Phillips. Phillips has been a disruptive force totaling 15 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. He’s hardly had to do it alone though as the Bearcats rotate 7-8 deep along the front including all conference honorees Zach Howard, Sam Roberts, and Mike Ehlke. Together, the Bearcats defense has amassed an MIAA best 42 sacks and forced 19 interceptions. The defense has also been successful in “deleting the run” of the opposing offenses only allowing 90 yards per game on the ground. The Bearcat defense has been the definition of suffocating, holding opponents to a third down conversion rate of 33% and only allowing 16 first downs a game.
The Bearcat offense has been the subject of much debate and criticism over the latter part of this season. But the fact remains that Northwest Missouri averages 43 points per game and has the second most productive rushing offense in the MIAA. When you play great defense and run the ball well, you don’t need an explosive passing game to rack up a lot of points. What Northwest Missouri asks Braden Wright to do is exactly what they need to compliment their running game and great defense. While he doesn’t have Brister like numbers this year, I think he has the same type of talent; both quarterbacks put up very similar stats during their freshman campaigns last year in the MIAA. Wright can make plays with both arm and legs. He’s responsible for 33 touchdowns and as amassed just shy of 3000 yards on the season. But the bread and butter of the Northwest Missouri offense lies in their running game. They have a pair of talented and explosive running backs in Justin Rankin and Isaiah Strayhorn both averaging over five yards per carry. Rankin has proven to be especially dangerous this year with 15 total touchdowns and over 1200 yards from scrimmage. Northwest Missouri also brings a talented receiving corps led by Imoni Donadelle, LaTroy Harper, and Marqus Andrews. The speedy Donadelle is a versatile deep threat that can also contribute on special teams and the running game. His 10 touchdowns on the year include one rushing and one kick return. Marqus Andrews is the prototypical MIAA tight end that has good size and enough athleticism to create matchup issues for opposing defenses.
As I’ve said before, it starts and ends with the offensive line, and the Bearcats have a good one. Despite being relatively young with only one starting senior, they have three starters receiving all-conference honors in a conference known for producing quality offensive linemen (Tanner Owen, Ryan Spelhaug, Gabe Bautz). The group has also powered a rushing attack averaging over 220 yards per game on the ground and only allowed 15 sacks on the year.
Defensively, the Lions have athletes at all three levels, but they continue to struggle with giving up the big play as evidenced by Ouachita’s first play from scrimmage last week (72-yard touchdown run). Lindenwood will need to see the continued growth and productivity along the defensive line. Drew Harlow and Tavian Weary have been lights out in recent games in defending the run game and getting to the quarterback. If Lindenwood can avoid being hurt by Northwest Missouri’s explosive weapons and consistently force third downs, it may give themselves a chance for the upset. The Bearcats conversion rate on third down is only around 32%, while Lindenwood holds their opponents to 38%.
Inconsistency and youth on the Lindenwood defensive side of the ball have allowed teams to move the ball on the Lions in just about every game. They’ve been susceptible to the big play largely because of mental mistakes. As the season has progressed, some of those mistakes have become less frequent, although they typically still make a few every game. What has contributed to the Lion’s success is the fact that the Lindenwood offense has kept pace with opposing teams long enough for their defense to tighten up and make the big play when needed; whether it be a big third/fourth down stop or a turnover. They key for the Lions will be to limit the Bearcat big plays, and to find a way to move the ball on the best defense they’ve seen all season. Of course, turnovers will also be a key in the game. The Bearcats have won every game in which they’ve won the turnover battle. The only game they’ve lost, they turned it over four times versus forcing only one.
While Brister and the Lions have consistently found a way to move the ball on everyone they’ve played, a disruptive defensive line can throw wrench in even the most potent offenses. As well as the Lindenwood offensive line has played of late, I think the Northwest Missouri defensive front will be a bit more than they can handle effectively. The Lions may find some success moving the ball, but probably not at the clip they’re used to. I think the Lion defense is going to have a tough time containing Justin Rankin as well. In the end, Lindenwood should prove again that this season’s improvement was more than just switching conferences, but the experience of the Bearcats and the championship DNA will be too much to overcome.