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Whitworth not overlooking Lewis & Clark with Northwest Conference title on the line

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 2, 2018

Whitworth head coach Rod Sandberg, hand raised, talks with his defense  during an August scrimmage at the Pine Bowl. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth head coach Rod Sandberg, hand raised, talks with his defense during an August scrimmage at the Pine Bowl. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The 12th-ranked Whitworth football team will take the field at the Pine Bowl on Saturday in need of one win to claim the Northwest Conference championship and a spot in the playoffs.

While their opponent may not look like it would instill much fear in the Pirates, Lewis & Clark has given plenty of teams trouble this year. In any case, the Pirates have plenty to correct from last week’s 37-19 victory over Pacific.

“We talk about two things around here a lot: pursuing excellence – we were not excellent (last) Saturday – and playing to our potential, being the best version of us we can be, and we weren’t that,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said.

The Pirates had their flattest start to a game in a month and overcame a 16-7 deficit before some halftime adjustments helped them retain their unblemished record (7-0 overall, 5-0 NWC).

The Pioneers (2-5, 1-4) have an explosive kicking game and great receiver play, Sandberg said. Their offense is potent, averaging 25.1 points per game, powered by running back Michael Abraham, whose 669 yards and seven touchdowns are second best in the NWC.

“One of our keys to victory is to stop the run. We need to have a commitment to that,” Sandberg said. “(Abraham is) big and physical and runs through tackles. We need to be great tacklers this week. Get people to the ball and when we get there, put him down.”

In four games in October, the Pioneers led Pacific Lutheran at half, and against George Fox and Pacific were within six points at the break. Only Linfield had a double-digit lead by halftime (29-13) during that stretch.

“It’s a little misleading. They are 2-5, but they’ve been in games into the third quarter,” senior receiver Garrett McKay said. “They played Linfield tough. It’s a team where we know they are going to play really hard. We’ve got to focus on executing.”

Sandberg is doing everything he can to ensure the Pirates don’t overlook the Pioneers, a team they beat 48-7 a year ago.

A couple of Pirates are chasing the all-time record books. After a six-catch, 80-yard performance last week, McKay is 13 receptions and 269 yards shy of Whitworth’s career records.

Senior defensive end Chad Wilburg, after his first three-sack performance of the season, has 11 and is nine shy of the single-season record set by Dave Pomante in 1980.

If the Pirates win today or next week at Willamette (1-6, 0-5), they would clinch a playoff berth and give McKay and Wilburg at least one more game to reach those records – and to give this year’s Pirates a chance to be remembered as one of the all-time best teams in program history.

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