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Minnesota, Texas, Tennessee or Georgia: Whitworth’s playoff possibilities could take Pirates far from Pine Bowl

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 16, 2018

Whitworth seniors line up in the inflatable helmet waiting to be introduced before playing Lewis & Clark, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 in the Pine Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth seniors line up in the inflatable helmet waiting to be introduced before playing Lewis & Clark, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 in the Pine Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Division III doesn’t officially name the quadrants of its 32-team playoff bracket, but the one Whitworth finds itself in may as well be the Archipelago of Far-flung Football Programs.

It features one from California, a pair from Minnesota, two more from Texas, one from Tennessee and another from Georgia.

And, of course, the Whitworth Pirates, who aren’t getting on any airplanes just yet. They host the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags at noon Saturday at the Pine Bowl.

Making their first playoff appearance, the Stags (7-3) are unranked but heralded as champion of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. They are one of two playoff teams with three losses. That includes two to teams Whitworth already defeated this season.

But they still present an interesting challenge for the 9-0 Pirates, who are hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2006.

“They make you earn everything,” coach Rod Sandberg said.

The Stags opened the season with a 45-35 home loss to Puget Sound, a Northwest Conference team the Pirates beat 47-13 in Week 6.

In Week 5 the Pirates handled the NWC’s Pacific Lutheran, 55-13. The Stags lost to the Lutes 10-7 in Week 3.

Whitworth won its two nonconference games against SCIAC schools La Verne (38-2) and Chapman (31-28), just as CMS defeated both later in the season (37-24 and 16-9, respectively).

But senior receiver Garrett McKay said those common opponents don’t mean much now.

“The scores don’t really matter at all. Just maybe if we can pick out any tendencies or anything that those teams did that worked or didn’t work,” McKay said. “Those (games were) so early in the season, we don’t take them into account much.”

That’s also because the Stags run such a unique – and effective – offense. Sandberg said they will line up with two, three and even four tight ends all over the field, not just down by the goal line. The Stags like to pound opponents with the run.

CMS averaged 48.2 rushing attempts per game. The only NWC team that came close to that was George Fox, at 44.3. The Stags churned out 4.3 yards on average per carry and used that methodical approach to hog the football more than 36 minutes per contest.

“They like to run the ball a lot, more than any team we’ve seen,” said senior defensive end Chad Wilburg, the NWC co-defensive player of the year. “It’s a good challenge for us, because we pride ourselves on stopping the run, so it’ll be a good matchup.”

CMS runs a pretty simple defensive system, Sandberg said, similar to George Fox (a team Whitworth beat 38-14). And like the Bruins, the Stags only allowed approximately 277 yards per game.

The Stags have forced 10 turnovers and recorded just 10 sacks this season, but they only give up 16.3 points per game, suggesting that while their defense is simple, it has been effective.

Should the Pirates win, they would likely face the same team they lost to in the second round 12 years ago: Saint John’s, which would host the game in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The Johnnies (10-0), ranked No. 3 in the final Top 25, host upstart Martin Luther (9-1) from New Ulm, Minnesota, on Saturday , a team that two years ago lost all 10 of its games.

A Pirates-Johnnies matchup would be one of two potential second-round games between undefeated teams.

In the quadrant’s other pod is a matchup of Texas teams Hardin-Simmons (9-1) and Mary Hardin-Baylor (10-0), and a game between 9-1 Berry (Rome, Georgia) and 7-2 Maryville (Tennessee). Mary Hardin-Baylor is the quadrant’s top seed and was the only other team to receive first-place votes (five) besides Mount Union (20) in that Top 25 poll.

Hardin-Simmons lost to the NWC’s Linfield in the first round each of the last two seasons.

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