When Rod Sandberg was hired in 2014 to take over the Whitworth football program, he aspired to match the successes of Linfield.
The No. 25 Pirates get the ultimate test Saturday in a game that probably will decide the conference championship at McMinnville, Ore. The game features the only two undefeated teams in the Northwest Conference.
The No. 2 Wildcats (5-0, 3-0 NWC) aren’t only good this year, they have been good for decades. Their 49-7 win last week over Willamette ensured a winning season for 60th consecutive year, a streak that started in 1956 and is the longest active streak by any college football team at any level.
“We want to be where they are at,” Sandberg said of the Wildcats. “This is a measuring stick for our program in year two to see how far it has come. Because, we want to win championships.”
Last year didn’t go so well in Sandberg’s first year. Linfield rolled up 719 yards in total offense, which was the third most in program history, in a 65-13 undressing that also was played in McMinnville.
Sandberg said he wants his team to focus on itself, forget last year and the historical dominance of Linfield, which has only lost eight conference games in the past 17 seasons. Whitworth hasn’t beaten Linfield since 2007 when it finished 8-2.
“We are not playing the team from 60 years ago,” Sandberg said. “We are playing this year’s team. We just need to stay in the moment and do our jobs.”
In that vein, Sandberg said he has been quoting former Stanford and San Francisco 49er’s coach Bill Walsh this week.
“I think there’s a great danger in making it bigger than it is,” he said of the game. “Walsh said in big games, ‘Do less, not more.’ so the kids can play fast and confident. We want to be who we are.”
Whitworth (6-0, 3-0 NWC) features a high-octane, up-tempo offense and an opportunistic defense that has fueled fast starts. The Pirates have outscored their opponents 152-10 in the first half this season.
As a result, the Pirates have only once faced a second half when they didn’t have a commanding lead. In that Oct. 10 game at Puget Sound, Whitworth turned to running back Duke DeGaetano to carry the load in the 24-7 win because high winds made the passing game ineffective.
The Wildcats have also put games away in a hurry. They have outscored conference opponents 199-17.
“They haven’t had a lot of people hit them in the mouth and be in a game in the fourth quarter, either,” Sandberg said. “Obviously, we need to play a complete game.”
Defensive coordinator Adam Richbart said Linfield has gained more yards passing than rushing, but remain fairly balanced behind the biggest offensive line that Whitworth has faced.
“They haven’t been in many close games, so it’s hard to say what they will do,” Richbart said. “It’s still about us. When we line up and do our jobs, we’ll be a very good team. You want to play games like this in October.”
On offense, quarterback Ian Kolste got hit early last week in Whitworth’s 32-7 win over Pacific Lutheran and then missed some throws. Offensive coordinator Alan Stanfield said the Lutes did a good job disguising blitzes, but he expects more of a standard pass rush from Linfield.
However, the Wildcats’ pass rush features first-team All-American defensive end Alex Hoff, who leads the league in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (10.5).
“We’ve got a good plan,” Stanfield said. “Guys are excited for the opportunity and are ready to thrive.”
In the big loss last year, Whitworth got one dimensional on offense and faced several long third-down situations. However, Stanfield said Linfield likes to drop seven or eight players in coverage, which should open running lanes for DeGaetano and Griffin Hare (Gonzaga Prep).
“You have to stay balanced,” he said. “These guys understand. You have to beat the best to be the best. That’s where we are trying to get to.”
Sandberg said the offensive line, which returns injured starting guard Michael Cruciotti, will have a huge test to keep Kolste “clean” against a defense that “flat-dab gets after you.”
“I tell these kids that you earned where you are at through your offseason work and through your play,” he said. “Athletes love to be in these types of situations. We are embracing it and we are excited to just go and compete.”
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