Purely defensive players never seem to get any love when it comes to their sport's highest individual awards. With acknowledgement to Charles Woodson in 1997, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o came the closest to winning the Heisman as a purely defensive player in 2012.
The calls for Notre Dame's Matt Landis to be the first D-man to win lacrosse's Tewaaraton Trophy are building every week on the blogs, in the lacrosse magazines, and on game broadcasts. So now a OFD missive on why we should care about Matt Landis and the Tewaaraton award:
Men's lacrosse, like football, has its litany of awards for the various position groups and all-around players. But since its relatively recent creation, the lacrosse community has promoted the Tewaaraton Trophy as its Heisman, complete with "watch lists" and the weekly tracking of the favorites ("Tewaaraton" is the Mohawk name for the sport of lacrosse). Since its inception, in the men's game it has been won exclusively by offense-first players. Midfielders, who do play both sides, have won the award, but no close defensive player has ever been seriously considered. Notre Dame's Matt Landis will be the first.
The 6'2", 195 lb. close defender from Pelham, NY, is week in and week out the best player on the field. In a year when parity has been the season's headline, no offensive player has separated himself from the pack, and many are victim to the losses of their team. Without a player churning up offensive stats like the Thompson brothers did for Albany the past two years in winning the Tewaaraton, selectors look to the best players on the best performing teams. For the #1 ranked Fighting Irish, that is Matt Landis. As long as ND keeps winning, Landis stays in the discussion. If they win the national championship, the calls to recognize him may be overwhelming.
The #1 team also has the #1 defense, and, with due respect to the talented Ed Glazener and Jack Sheridan, and with the slight exception of the injured Garrett Epple, this defense has no nationally recognized players other than Landis. This defense has held every opponent well below their seasonal scoring averages. Against name-brand opponents, strikingly below their averages:
#5 Maryland held to 4 goals (10 goals per game)
#4 Denver held to 9 goals in OT (13.35 gpg)
#14 Virginia held to 7 goals (11.27 gpg)
#10 Syracuse held to 7 goals (13 gpg)
In each of these defensive performances, Landis has played the dominant role in stifling the opposition's top players.
Stylistically, Matt Landis is a relentless defender, always on the players hands, and strong enough to shove his opponent without losing balance or becoming thuggish. His timing on slides is impeccable, and he is able to recover from his slides almost instantaneously. As the #3 pick in this year's MLL draft, he was the highest defenseman selected, and last week on national television he completely dominated the #2 draft pick, Dylan Donohue, by holding him to one measly goal. The Irish have also played against the other "watch list" defensemen: Denver's Burgdorf, Ohio State's Haus, Syracuse's Mullins and Virginia's Scales, and there is absolutely no comparison.
The best example on film of Landis' relentless style, and what has made him a defensive legend, was his epic matchup against Lyle Thompson in the 2015 NCAA quarterfinals. Thompson was a two-time Tewaaraton winner and the most prolific scorer in the history of NCAA men's lacrosse. A full fifteen minutes of the game was a one-on-one battle between these two greats, with Thompson determined to win the game all on his own, and Landis ceding one mere goal leading to the Irish win. By the 4th quarter, Landis had worn the sport's greatest player down to nothing.
He has also become one of the more versatile close defensemen in country, being utilized on the wings in key faceoffs and dropping the hammer on unsuspecting midfielders in the ride. This season, every game has simply shown him to be far and away the dominating presence on the field.
Landis is the defending ACC defensive player of the year. More importantly, he is also the defending Schmiesser Award recipient as the best defenseman in the country, and he is very likely to be awarded the trophy again this year. Also lacrosse has historically, if only occasionally, recognized top defensive play. In 2003, Princeton's star defender Rachel Becker won the women's Tewaaraton Trophy, and Johns Hopkins' current coach Dave Pietramala won the Lt. Raymond Enners Award in 1989 with the coaches' vote as the top player in lacrosse, so the notion that a d-man can win is not complete fantasy.
And, of course, the Fighting Irish are on national TV far more than anyone else this year, so the selectors will all have seen him dominate game in and game out
The case against Landis:
The challenge with evaluating Landis is that there are no individual measurables. In advocating for Te'o one could point to a combination of tackles, interceptions, and fumbles recovered. The only semi-defensive stats recorded in lacrosse are ground balls and caused turnovers, neither of which are particularly instructive. Landis essentially doesn't show up on the stat sheet. There's nothing noticeable about his ground balls and caused turnover numbers. The only thing that is noticeable on paper is the absence of stats of the star players competing opposite him, and the fact that the teams playing the Irish simply can't score and there are no star defenders of note other than him.
Notre Dame's defensive style doesn't help either. Coaches Corrigan and Byrne do not make a specific point of matching Landis, or anyone else for that matter, against any particular player on the opposition (even though it generally winds up being Landis even if not by design). The defensive scheme is decidedly a team approach, a point Matt Landis himself asserts anytime asked. Further, even on his own team he lacks the star power of Kavanaugh and Perkovic, who as offensive players regularly grace the highlight reels (and who shared the cover photo with Landis in the February edition of Lacrosse Magazine). The offensive players' shadow is so big that in the preseason fan polls for player of the year, Landis was third on his own team.
Finally, while there's no off-the-charts offensive star running off with the trophy like Thompson the last two years, there is definitely competition to tempt the selectors:
*Brown's Dylan Molloy is building a great season averaging 6.33 points per game so far. Despite their loss this week to Bryant, Brown is 8-1 and Molloy had six points in the losing effort. As long as they keep winning, Molloy will be the name to consider.
*The preseason favorite, Duke's Myles Jones, is having a great year even if his 7-5 team is severely under-performing. The 6'5" 245 lb. massive midfielder is coming off an 11-point performance against rival North Carolina (to compare, Kavanaugh's banner day against Syracuse only yielded him 9). Had Myles not been from the football wasteland of Long Island, our OFD recruitniks would have loved to see him on the Defensive Big Board with his size, speed and agility. The good news is that Landis will have a chance to settle the score against Jones, Deemer Class, and the rest of the high-powered Duke offense, and we'll see how far below Duke's season scoring average of 14.5 goals they can be held on Sunday. If ND wins, they will likely also eliminate the chances of Duke gaining an at-large bid to the NCAAs, and in all likelihood, eliminate Jones as a Tewaaraton candidate. Landis gives 3 inches in height and 55 lbs to the gigantic Jones.
*For fun, we can throw in Big Game Blaze Riorden, the Albany lacrosse goalie and favorite of the OFD comments section. If Albany by some miracle finds itself in the championship game, it will decidedly be on the back of the portly one, and they'll invent awards just to give him more.
Why should we care?
First and foremost, I hope there is no better argument than our desire to support the best of our Fighting Irish athletes in their efforts to gain recognition as being the best. That reason should be enough in itself.
Within the NCAA, lacrosse has seen an explosion of growth in the last 15 years, with a 105% increase in women's participation, and 94% in men's. This growth is exponentially greater than any other NCAA sport during the same period. The numbers are staggering. During this same period, youth participation has grown well over 200%, creating a massive talent pool whose highest growth is in the South, the Midwest and the West.
While risking being sentimental or banal, the second reason is that a Tewaaraton Trophy winner will position Notre Dame in lacrosse today as the football team did in the first half of the 20th century, as the team with a national reach and schedule, national champions (hopefully in lacrosse), and Heisman winners. Which Division I team, in addition to recruiting well in the traditional Northeast hotbeds, has a half dozen players from California, and players from Texas, Georgia, Michigan and Indiana? Which team plays to sold out crowds at neutral sites in Los Angeles and Atlanta, as well as having an annual rivalry game against the western power Denver? It's the same team that has been knocking on the doorstep of the national championship the past six years (and whose athletic director was himself a Notre Dame lacrosse player). All that is missing is to pry recognition of the top player away from the traditional East coast schools, and the center of gravity for men's lacrosse moves firmly into South Bend. Other than Kevin Corrigan, who would have ever thought that? (speaking for myself, I've always simply been glad they even have a decent team!)
The Notre Dame defense, led by Matt Landis, will face a serious test against Myles Jones and Duke this Sunday, April 10, noon at Arlotta Stadium. ESPNU.