It’s odd to apply the underdog label to the Whitworth football team, which won nine games by an average of nearly 20 points.
However, it fits in this case. The Pirates’ lone blemish was a no-doubter, 52-10, administered by Linfield last month in McMinnville that essentially settled the Northwest Conference title. The stakes are higher when No. 22 Whitworth (9-1) visits No. 2 Linfield (9-0) Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The Pirates will travel the same roads, stay in the same hotel but they’re looking for a different outcome. Some D-III observers were surprised when Whitworth received one of six at-large bids. The Pirates would like to pull off a bigger surprise against the Wildcats, whose average margin of victory was 46.6 points.
“Rarely in life do you get a second chance,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “We’ve been there, done it before. Let’s go play.”
Linfield’s NWC dominance was evident in the all-conference awards. The Wildcats had 14 first-team selections. Quarterback Sam Riddle was the offensive player of the year, defensive end Alex Hoff was the defender of the year for the second straight season and Joseph Smith was named coach of the year for the seventh straight season.
Whitworth had 14 players honored, including five first-teamers. The Pirates know they face a huge challenge but believe they’ve made gains since the Oct. 24 meeting.
“We don’t listen to the (experts),” senior defensive end Danny Welstad said. “We’re going to go into it with a little bit of an attitude to prove a lot of people wrong that think we don’t have what it takes to win a game like this.”
The first meeting was a mismatch. Linfield gained 587 total yards to Whitworth’s 133. Linfield punted once, Whitworth a season-high 11 times. The Wildcats had eight quarterback sacks. Whitworth was actually plus 1 in the turnover category but an early 3-0 lead was erased by five Linfield touchdown drives, four between 52 and 90 yards.
“We learned a couple of things. One, they played faster than us,” Sandberg said. “We’ve got to play faster. As coaches, we have to simplify things so our kids don’t have to think as much and they just play fast.
“No. 2, when you play a great team, the smallest of mistakes is magnified. You play a team that you’re better than, they can’t hurt you. It doesn’t show up. We have to execute at a much higher level.”
Whitworth has put together some impressive numbers. Quarterback Ian Kolste averages 263.5 yards per game. Duke DeGaetano has rushed for 765 yards and 11 touchdowns. Garrett McKay (50 catches), Mike McKeown (46) and Kevin Thomas (38) pace a receiving unit that also includes tight end Nick Kiourkas, who averages 16.4 yards per catch and has a team-high seven touchdowns.
The Pirates’ defense, led by first-team All-NWC selections Daniel Portillo and Dalin McDonnell, leads the conference in turnover margin (plus 1.8 per game) and ranks second in sacks (4.3 per game).
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