In Battle Of Callahan Winners, Conditions Favored Nethercutt

UNC's Jon Nethercutt
UNC’s Jon Nethercutt. Photo: Alex Fraser —

Two powerhouse programs. Two teams at the top of the Division in the past three years. Two Callahan winners.

For the first time since 2005, two Callahan winners squared off in the National Championship game.

Dylan Freechild, the 2013 winner, and Jon Nethercutt, who was crowned on Sunday night, have been among the best players in the game for years and the championship clash was an opportunity for both players to cement themselves in the history of the game. What made the matchup particularly enticing was that the two superstars have distinctly different playing styles.

Despite the fact that both players mostly operate in the backfield, their opposing skill sets represent two different takes on the handler role. Nethercutt plays the position like a turret, raining throws down on his opponents from any angle, anywhere on the field. When a teammates dumps him the disc it is like loading a cannon, and led to several teams developing Nethercutt-specific calls that alert their downfield defenders when he gets the disc. His throwing ability and vision are transcendent, highlighted by this jaw dropping stat: Nethercutt had 46 assists at Nationals and the rest of Darkside combined had 47.

Proportionally, Freechild is somehow even more proficient. He had 37 assists while the rest of Ego totaled 36. But while Nethercutt makes his bones unleashing terror through the air, Freechild gets most of his work done on the ground.

This season, and particularly at Nationals, Freechild has been virtually unguardable getting open for dumps. By getting resets at will, Freechild is able to keep possessions alive for Oregon and constantly shift the angle of attack. For years Freechild has been a terror in give and go situations, but this season he has really learned how to exploit the fear teams have for his upline cuts and use it to make the rest of Oregon’s offense run smoother.

With the speed of Oregon’s receivers, once Freechild opens up the deadside with his handler movement and around throws, no team can guard them over the entire 40 yard width of the field. The hard work Freechild puts into attacking the dump space leads to easy goals for Ego cutters.

Entering the championship game this afternoon, it was a good bet that whichever team’s superstar was able to dictate play to their strengths more effectively would have a good shot at winning. The big wrinkle came in the form of 25 MPH winds that howled across the fields all day.

In a windy game, it is often the team that is able to win the field position battle that comes away victorious. Taking aggressive deep shots both up and downwind leads to a lot of turnovers, but those turnovers force your opponent to go the full length of the field in the wind. It is not the most aesthetically pleasing gameplan, but it is certainly a pragmatic one.

This presented a challenge for Freechild and Oregon, because, as a team, Ego has not taken a lot of deep shots this year. In their semifinal game against Florida State, they did not put up a single huck in the entire first half, and instead were able to score almost at will by beating the defense on in-cuts and working the disc through Freechild. This strategy calls for the team to make a lot of throws per point, as opposed to a UNC team that can often score after a couple swings and one massive Nethercutt throw into the endzone.

With intense winds, every throw becomes challenging, and needing to string ten or twelve passes together sometimes is actually riskier than a single low percentage throw. The question became whether or not Oregon would be able to stick to their style or be forced into adapting to the conditions.

It became clear after a couple points that Oregon were not going to play the offense they had all year, and instead were going to engage North Carolina in a huck-and-set-field position battle. This was a result of the wind, as well as the defensive machinations of Darkside coach Mike DeNardis. From the start, UNC threw poachy zones at Ego that were designed to turn the game into an upwind/downwind hucking affair by cutting off Oregon’s ability to work the disc underneath.

As soon as he got to the fields in the morning, Nethercutt knew the wind and UNC’s zones would play a part in molding the flow of the action. “I was out here throwing before the game and crossfield hammers were literally impossible,” said the Callahan winner. “Once we saw that, we knew we would have success if we could keep Oregon from getting open cuts and make them play field position.”

Oregon has seen junk defenses before this season, and had success working their way around them. But yesterday, with the severe winds making the swings and continuations they usually rely on extremely difficult, they were often forced to huck and hope, which is exactly the game that UNC wants to play.

With the wind forcing both teams to be liberal in their deep throw selection, Nethercutt becomes a trump card. Given the green light to bomb away at will, his throwing prowess proved to be a big difference maker. The best thrower on the field, if not the entire college game, Nethercutt had an ability to move the disc with confidence upwind that was just too much for Oregon’s defense to handle. He hit on several tough shots that gave UNC devastating upwind scores, and carved out an early lead for Darkside.

Nethercutt had six recorded turnovers, normally a high number for one of the best throwers in the country. But in this game that number is actually surprisingly low. No one else on the field could hit the sort of throws he did in the wind, or really was even trying to, and his expertise allowed UNC to dominate the field position battle that would define the game.

On the other side of the coin, the conditions could not have fit Oregon and Freechild’s game worse. Simply put, Oregon being forced into a field position battle made Freechild do something he is merely good at, and didn’t allow him to do the things that make him a transcendent player. Dylan is a capable deep thrower, but his Oregon team was simply not equipped to win an aerial battle with the hulking frames of UNC’s deep threats like Aaron Warshauer and Ben Snell. Freechild’s hucks would have to be absolutely perfect if they were going to land in the hands of his receivers.

Sometimes, Oregon was able to hit on their deep shots, but for the majority of the game UNC owned the skies. When long points devolved into a hucking contest, Nethercutt and UNC were going to win almost every time.

When Oregon did try to quixotically work the disc up through Dylan as they had all year, it did not produce much better results than their forlorn deep game. On multiple occasions Freechild managed to bust open Darkside’s zones with a single incredible break throw, but more often than not those opportunities were squandered.

“They had some really impressive inside throws, inside breaks that got them space,” said UNC coach DeNardis after the game. “But they didn’t do a good job continuing.” Time and time again, Oregon’s receivers turfed continuation throws that they just couldn’t make in the tumultuous conditions.

A microcosm of the whole game occurred late in the second half, when Freechild sent a perfect break backhand huck 55 yards upwind to a receiver mere feet from the endzone. After reeling in the huck, the Oregon player tried to throw a continuation into the end zone, but the combination of a shaky throw and a bobbled catch led to a turnover that gave UNC and Nethercutt the opportunity to bomb throws downfield for a break.

Freechild still had a phenomenal game, either scoring or assisting on every Ego goal. Those numbers don’t even tell the whole story of how well he played, as his ability to keep up his intensity even as North Carolina’s lead became insurmountable was inspiring.

The maturity and poise he displayed as his season and college career came crashing down around him was admirable. He never snapped at his teammates or let his level of play drop an inch. In fact, as the deficit mounted, he brought his play up, hitting on almost every impossible looking break throw and cutting for the disc as hard as he has all tournament. It just wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that Oregon was playing UNC’s game, and that was a game UNC was always going to win.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller

    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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