The climb to the top of the NCAA Division III football mountain is steep and slippery, but it is one the Linfield Wildcats very nearly ascended during an overwhelmingly successful 2013 season.
Using a tested defense and a balanced, explosive offense, Linfield rolled to 11 straight wins before dropping its only game, 28-17, on the road in the quarterfinals of the national playoffs at perennial powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater.
For a team armed with 32 seniors and seemingly primed and capable of making a run at the national championship, Linfield’s lone loss was disappointing. Not for lack of effort or execution, but because the Wildcats had fallen short of their season-long quest of winning a NCAA championship.
Mounting injuries along the defensive line and in the offensive backfield eventually took an inevitable toll, sidelining two All-Americans and four other first team all-conference performers over the course of the season. Knee injuries, concussions and other maladies were as difficult for the ‘Cats to sidestep as any seasoned playoff opponent.
Standing toe-to-toe with UW-Whitewater, one of the preeminent programs in Division III over the previous 10 years, Linfield stormed to a 17-0 first-half lead, only to see the Warhawks retaliate by scoring 28 straight points to secure the win. Facing one of the nation’s best defenses, the Wildcats and their Division III-leading offense was held to just 89 yards over the final 30 minutes.
“We have had very talented teams over the past five seasons, but the 2013 team had an unusual amount of playing experience to go with strong talent,” said Wildcats coach Joseph Smith. “The sheer number of snaps logged by our returning starters on defense was special. It made for one incredible defense, a very talented seasoned group that had seen the country’s elite.”
While coaches and outside observers expected Linfield’s defense to excel, there were questions before the season started about whether the offense would thrive with a first-year starter behind center.
Those doubts were put to rest immediately. In the season-opening contest at Hardin-Simmons, the Wildcats steamrolled the Cowboys 71-21.
“The quarterback position was the big unknown coming in,” said Smith. “Josh Yoder won the position and exploded on the scene. We had geared much of the offense toward his athletic abilities during the offseason and he excelled in the dual-threat role.”
A string of blowouts followed the Hardin-Simmons game. Linfield drubbed Cal Lutheran (52-14), Case Western (45-0), Pacific Lutheran (29-0) and Whitworth (51-17) in order. The ‘Cats also pounded Lewis & Clark and Puget Sound by a combined score of 163-10 and thumped Northwest Conference rival Willamette 56-15.
“When we were at full strength, our defense was suffocating and our offense was very explosive,” said Smith. “As our special teams improved, we finally became a team that could attack on all three fronts at once. That led to some incredible games in which the outcome was determined in the first quarter.”
The sheer dominance over normally worthy adversaries was something Smith, in 20 seasons on the Linfield coaching staff and four more as a player, had never before witnessed.
“I have not seen a Linfield team as dominant as we were this season,” he said.
Statistically, Linfield ended the season ranked first in Division III in rushing defense (60.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (48.8 points per game), and second in third-down conversion rate (.531).
Opening with three games in three different time zones was a new experience for the Wildcats, but something that helped prepare the team for travel and time zone challenges that likely loomed ahead in the playoffs.
What Linfield lacked as the playoffs approached was the chance to demonstrate its response to adversity on the field. That opportunity came in the final week of the regular season against Pacific. The Wildcats trailed 13-7 at intermission before outscoring the Boxers 21-9 over the final two quarters.
“This team was playoff-ready earlier than most have been. We needed to struggle and experience what it’s like to come back,” said Smith. “As the injuries mounted, we lost some of the explosiveness on offense and defense and we found ourselves having to win closer games.
“For a variety of unusual circumstances we found ourselves in a tight contest with Pacific and I was so happy for that at halftime. We finally were in a tight game and frustrated with our play. It gave us a chance to experience frustration and move through it before experiencing it against an elite team in the playoffs. There was no panic, just a sense of ‘these are the facts, this what we have to do, let’s quit messing around and go do it.’”
The experience paid off in the playoffs. After soundly discarding PLU 42-21 in the first round, Linfield hosted Hampden-Sydney of Virginia the following week. The Tigers raced to a 21-3 second-quarter lead, forcing the Wildcats to rally to win against a playoff-caliber opponent. The Wildcats scored the game’s final 28 points to advance.
“This team had a tremendous amount of fight in it,” said Smith. “It was cool and resolved, not getting too high and not getting too low, rather keeping a steady fire going throughout the entire game. The sheer number of injuries this team sustained before camp, during camp, and at the end of the season, would have crippled and hamstrung most teams. I could not be more proud of this team for the way that we absorbed those and moved on with ‘the next guy up’ filling the void.”
Standing back to assess the big picture, Smith and the Wildcats could take pride in the program’s fifth straight Northwest Conference title, 58th consecutive winning season, two NCAA playoff victories, plus a near upset of eventual national champion UW-Whitewater.
In reflection, Linfield’s aspiration of winning the Division III national championship was not simply words on paper, but rather deeds in action, noted Smith.
“We made no bones about ‘daring greatly’ this year. This team wanted it badly and more importantly they gladly paid the price to have the right to ‘dare greatly.’ This group worked and sacrificed as few Linfield teams ever have. From having played the elite-level teams in Division III over the past five years such as Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor, St. Thomas, Wesley, UW-Oshkosh, and North Central, we knew what awaited us in Wisconsin.
“We limped into the Whitewater game a battered and bruised team, facing without question the best team we have faced in several seasons. However, there was nothing wrong with our belief and spirit. I will always remember with great pride the way this team ‘ran to the battle’ and left everything we had out on that field. As emotionally painful as that game was for all of us, that memory will go down as one of my proudest moments ever of Linfield Football.”
Though they must bid goodbye to a remarkable senior class, Smith and his coaching staff are left to sustain the program and perhaps reaching the mountaintop once more.
“This is a truly remarkable group of young men. They will be the leading citizens of their communities. They are Men of Action, they will do the heavy lifting that needs to be done. These young men have accomplished so much on the football field, but even more off the field. I am confident they will make us just as proud 20 years from now with the lives they are leading, as they have these past four years at Linfield. Our young players have enjoyed tremendous role models teaching them the Linfield Way of doing things. Now the bar has been set even higher.”
No doubt about it.