Several hours after St. Thomas and Linfield had emerged victorious last Saturday in their respective playoff football games, Jordan Roberts and Ty Farber exchanged texts of well-wishes.
Roberts, the Tommies’ junior running back, and Farber, a starting defensive tackle for Linfield, were junior high school teammates in Gillette, Wyo. Farber’s move to Wasilla, Alaska, for high school — yes, he knows the Palin family — severed a budding friendship, but the two have maintained contact since.
On Saturday, their personal roles in the NCAA Division III semifinal game will go a long way toward determining the success of their respective teams.
St. Thomas relies on a bullish Roberts-led run attack behind a massive offensive line that averages 306 pounds. Farber, 5-11, 250, is part of, by comparison, an undersized defensive line that averages 248 pounds. The ability of Linfield’s defense to hold its own in the trenches and contain Roberts figures to be pivotal.
“Stopping the run is definitely the focus of our defense,” Farber said. “If we stop their running game, teams have to pass and continue to pass. And our defensive backs and linebackers are pretty good.”
The front four is pretty good too, featuring 230-pound end Alex Hoff, who has 15 sacks and 24 tackles for loss and is described by Farber as “freakishly athletic.” And Roberts knows enough about his old friend to know nothing will come easy.
“Ty’s one of their heartbeat guys, one of their best players on defense,” Roberts said. “He’s extremely powerful, super mentally tough. I remember that from playing football with him in junior high. He was a beast.”
Linfield coach Joseph Smith believes the match-up highlights the main difference in West Coast and Midwest football at the Division III level. Smith, it should be noted, is well-acquainted with Midwest football. Since Linfield won the national title in 2004, the Wildcats have had their playoff runs stopped by UW-Whitewater four times and once each by UW-Oshkosh and St. Thomas (24-17 in two overtimes in 2010). In 2009 Linfield bested St. Thomas 31-20, only to lose to Whitewater the next weekend.
“I think that’s kind of a common problem for us when we get in the playoffs,” Smith said of the disparity in size between his line and the Tommies. “People aren’t as big on the West Coast as they are in [the Midwest]. ”
St. Thomas has averaged 248 yards rushing a game, led by Roberts, a transfer from Division IA South Dakota, who has 1,701 rushing yards. Linfield, though, promises to be a stiff test. The Wildcats might lack size, but their athleticism and speed has helped limit opponents to 78.1 rushing yards per game, which is eighth-best nationally.
Farber said he and his teammates aren’t all that worried about being outweighed by more than 50 pounds a man on their defensive line. “We feel we match up better against bigger guys,” Farber said. “We’re usually quicker, and it’s easier to get underneath for more leverage. But we know St. Thomas is a different animal. They’re bigger, and quicker, than most teams.”
Linfield’s talent level is different from most teams’ as well. St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso calls the Wildcats “wildly talented, among the most talented teams we’ve ever had at this level.” The ringleaders are Hoff, a Division III All-America last year, and junior quarterback Sam Riddle, who has passed for 2,259 yards and 29 TDs.
But Riddle sat out last week’s quarterfinal with a sprained ankle, and his status for Saturday is uncertain, Smith said. Tom Knecht, a 6-5 senior, passed for 492 yards and five TDs in a 38-35 quarterfinal victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor, rallying his team from a 21-0 deficit.
“Pick your poison,” Caruso said of the prospect of which QB the Tommies would face.
Linfield’s defenders are much more certain about what they will face: Roberts running for daylight behind that large line. Farber said he has tried to prep his teammates on just what they will be facing.
“I’ve told our players that he’s a great running back, a transfer from a Division I school and definitely a weapon,” Farber said. “He’s shifty and powerful. But we’re pretty confident in our run-stopping ability.”