Linfield becomes road warriors when NCAA D-III football playoffs open Saturday
Story by Nick Daschel, Oregonian Thur 11/17/2016
Photos from 2016 season by Wildcatville/Mac News
Linfield won its eighth consecutive Northwest Conference football title this season, and claimed nearly two dozen berths on the all-league team.
But that's where the similarities end for the 2016 Wildcats and their teams of recent seasons.
Linfield (8-1) starts the NCAA Division III playoffs on the road for the first time in school history when the Wildcats face Hardin-Simmons (9-1) at 10 a.m. Saturday in Abilene, Tex. In 12 previous D-III playoff appearances – including the past seven years – Linfield has opened the playoffs at home.
But a combination of the NCAA's thriftiness in assembling the Division III bracket – it tries to minimize the number of plane trips during the opening rounds, rather than build a bracket through power rankings – and Linfield's early-season loss at No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor (Tex.) has put the Wildcats in an unprecedented predicament.
If Linfield wants to win the NCAA title – something it did in 2004, and threatened to do the past two years with semifinal appearances – the Wildcats will likely have to play five road games in five weeks, all at least two time zones from McMinnville.
Linfield coach Joseph Smith says he often brings up the inequities to NCAA officials, but rarely is there a resolution. Last year, for example, Smith said Linfield ran a deficit of about $130,000 playing host to three home games and traveling once.
"Nobody cares. We're out here in Oregon. There are 340 (D-III teams) and there are only 15 on the West coast. It's Linfield's problem. Nobody else's," Smith said. "If we lose, it would save us money."
Winning the NWC title has usually been rewarded with at least one home game, but as Linfield found out Sunday when the bracket was unveiled, it's not a guarantee. The Wildcats' 66-27 loss at Mary Hardin-Baylor – a game that was 24-20 at halftime before the Crusaders outscored Linfield 28-0 in the fourth quarter – proved to be their playoff undoing.
Hardin-Simmons finished second to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the American Southwest Conference, but played a much closer game (20-15 loss) to the Crusaders than Linfield.
"It's certain disappointing for our conference," Smith said. "I would love to see a bracket someday where it's a real bracket. The geographical disadvantage of being in the West is real. Teams coming out of this region have a great uphill battle compared to others. It comes down to attrition. How will our depth hold out as we map out three or four games."
Not only is Linfield looking at a lot of road games, but tough ones, too. Five of the top 13 ranked teams according to D3Football.com landed in Linfield's quarter bracket: No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor, No. 5 North Central (Ill.), No. 8 Linfield, No. 11 Hardin-Simmons, No. 13 Wheaton (Ill.).
Smith is also of the mind that nothing can be done, saying "it is what it is," and he long since moved on to figuring out how to beat Hardin-Simmons. It's not the first difficult challenge Linfield has faced this season.
Mary Hardin-Baylor's 39-point win over Linfield on Sept. 17 is Linfield's most lopsided loss since Smith became coach in 2006. Smith has had to deal with a few regular-season losses during his tenure, but none of this magnitude.
It was a perfect storm, of sorts. Mary Hardin-Baylor had all offseason to stew over a 38-35 quarterfinal loss to Linfield, where the Crusaders blew a 21-0 first-quarter lead. Played in front of a standing-room only crowd in Belton, Tex. on a steamy September afternoon, Linfield battled Mary Hardin-Baylor well for three quarters, but a bad punt snap, a fumble turnover, and an 87-yard touchdown run late in the second half turned a close game into a rout.
"We basically fell apart in the humidity. That was such a grueling factor and I don't think it's something we'll experience again," Smith said.
But, in a strange way, the one-sided loss was one of the best things to happen to Linfield. The Crusaders exposed the Wildcats' flaws, and the team has had two months to make repairs. In recent seasons, Linfield didn't find out where the cracks were until the final playoff game. By then, it's too late.
"It's been slow, steady progress in shoring up our technical skills and our habits. Our guys have rose to the occasion. They've embraced it," Smith said.
If Linfield gets past Hardin-Simmons, the Wildcats will likely get a rematch with Mary Hardin-Baylor, which opens against Redlands (Calif.).