The Hodags summoned their willpower to make a memorable comeback.
May 26, 2019 by Edward Stephens in Coverage, News, Recap with 0 comments
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The atmosphere on the showcase field was raucous from the get-go. While the added pressure of elimination play fired up the competitors, the feeling was amplified by a large crowd made up of the predictable mass of nearby TUFF supporters, as well as a significant delegation of parents and alumni from Wisconsin. The Hodags always travel well. Both factions coordinated cheers, and the Wisconsin fans brought cowbells.
Texas dominated out of the gate. They broke on the game’s fourth point, and again on the seventh to take a 5-2 lead. Matt Armour and the Texas defense made a special point of hassling Wisconsin cutter Nick Vogt, playing him tight enough that regular contact was inevitable. While he still found daylight in isolation at the front of the end zone (a role he has embraced at this tournament), the tactic muted Vogt’s impact somewhat. It also brought him into frequent conversations about rules, both with his defenders and the observers. Vogt’s calls and contests, most of them justified, were a major theme of Wisconsin’s choppy possessions in the first half. It isn’t inconceivable to think that TUFF had succeeded a little in distracting him with litigation.
No such Jedi mind tricks were necessary for Texas on the offensive side of the disc. They threw in the wind as well as anybody during pool play, and the game against Wisconsin further emphasized the point. Armour, Reese Bowman, and Brian Street shot well early. With Vinay Valsaraj blazing through the cutting lanes, how could they not? The senior Valsaraj was everywhere for Texas on both sides of the disc. He gave a master class in isolation cutting and was, at least for this game, the team’s best defender. When Texas was rolling, it felt as though the whole team were taking their cues from his accomplishments. TUFF took a two-break, 8-5 lead into half largely on the strength of his play.
Wisconsin went back to the drawing board during the half to plan for the TUFF’s defensive schemes. They also knew they had to find a way to slow down the Texas O-line, who only turned the disc over once in six possessions. “We’d been giving up short possession goals,” said coach Hector Valdivia. “We needed to grind more.”
And grind they did, breaking on their first defensive point to bring the score to 8-7. It was the first moment in the game when D-line handler Sam Hebert got to spring into action. If you were keeping tabs on Wisconsin this weekend when they converted a break, it’s almost certain that Sam Hebert was involved. The fifth-year Hebert, who did not realize until after he gave a farewell speech last year that he still had eligibility, runs the Hodag offense after a turnover. It was a particularly heavy responsibility in these conditions, with the wind making breaks difficult to finish. Putting the disc in his hands when the team needs a break was plan A, B, and C. “It’s a lot of stress for us to demand of him,” admitted Valdivia.
Stress be damned, the steady, heady Hebert had no trouble rising to the occasion. After Texas put together a mini-run to bring the score to 11-7, Wisconsin called him on a line with six guys from the offense. They held upwind with no trouble at all.
What only became apparent after the game was finished was that that hold would be Wisconsin’s last. They broke Texas each of the next five points to win the game on a staggering six point run. The adjustments only accounted for part of it, and Valdivia took little credit for his team’s reversal. “The last seven points were in the players’ hands,” he said. Hebert continued to make hay upwind, and Jacob Rubin-Miller intercepted a first throw for a Callahan.
The play of the game, however, came from their superstar, Vogt. After a few missed opportunities and several minutes of a back-and-forth point, one of the Hodags launched an upwind backhand huck — only nobody was even thinking about cutting deep. Vogt, who had sort of been setting up an under on the high side, turned to chase it. Despite the fact that he had to run around the whole stack, the throw hung long enough for him to make a desperate leap for it. He came up short and lost his footing on the landing. That should have been that: nice effort, no score. But Vogt kept crawling on his stomach and made a second-effort lunge to haul in the score (and redeem the poor kid who threw it).
While they didn’t make as many plays as Wisconsin, TUFF didn’t implode in the second half either. Their demise took the form of something more like wear around the edges. The away throws that did so much damage in the first half missed by a few inches in the second. The defense came away with fewer jump balls. For head coach Calvin Lin, the difference between the halves wasn’t a matter of adjustments: “We got tired.” He laid the blame squarely at his own feet: “This loss is on me. I should have rested the guys more.”
Wisconsin’s win earns them a shot at defending champions North Carolina in the quarterfinal tomorrow, and we can all look forward to at least one more riveting performance from their cowbell chorus entourage.