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High-scoring Saint John’s presents tough test for unbeaten Whitworth in Division III playoffs

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 23, 2018

Whithworth’s Brayden Corona, right, battles Claremont-Mudd-Scripps’ Cade Moffatt in the third quarter of the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at the Pine Bowl in Spokane last Saturday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Whithworth’s Brayden Corona, right, battles Claremont-Mudd-Scripps’ Cade Moffatt in the third quarter of the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at the Pine Bowl in Spokane last Saturday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The score stands out, certainly: 84-6.

That’s the margin – a playoff record-setting margin – by which Martin Luther lost to Saint John’s last week in the first round of the Division III football playoffs.

Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg heard that score shortly after his team’s first-round victory, a relatively modest 48-6 win over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

“I can promise you one thing right now: They will not score 84 on us,” he said.

The 11-0 Johnnies – who handed off to nine players seemingly in an effort to tamp down the second-half scoring – present a formidable challenge for the 10-0 Pirates, who visit Collegeville, Minnesota, on Saturday morning for the teams’ second-round matchup at Clemens Stadium.

The Johnnies won their first 10 games by an average margin of 37.7 points, including a 34-16 victory at 10-1 Bethel (Minnesota), which is still alive in the playoffs.

Saint John’s has only given up 99 points all season, has forced 34 turnovers and recorded 38 sacks in 11 games.

“On film you see a team that is good across the board,” Sandberg said. “There’s (no) weak guy. No, they’re good. Their 2’s are good. They’ve got a quarterback who can spin it. He’s a pretty good football player. I think it all starts there with him.”

Junior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, the Most Valuable Player of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, has thrown 40 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

Erdmann has attempted more than 26 passes in a game once this year, but he and the Johnnies make remarkably good use of those throws. They average 10.2 yards per attempt, fifth best in the nation.

Add to that a running game that averages 5.7 yards per attempt and 208 yards per game, and Saint John’s fields a balanced, efficient offense.

The Pirates, for their part, have held nearly every opponent’s running game in check all season. They’ve allowed just 59.2 yards per game, and while that includes yardage from their Northwest Conference-best 46 sacks, the Pirates have repeatedly stymied opposing running backs, built leads and forced teams to throw a lot in hopes of catching up.

That has helped the Pirates record 109 tackles for loss (including the sacks), which is by average the best in the nation.

“This team is beatable,” senior safety Jayden Jira said of Saint John’s. “They have some athletes, but we have some good athletes, too.”

This is the third time the programs have played, and Saint John’s won both times at the Pine Bowl: 7-3 in 1975 (a regular-season game) and 21-6 in the second round of the 2006 playoffs.

Saint John’s is 6-1 against other NWC teams. The most recent of those contests was in the 2003 quarterfinals, when the Johnnies beat Linfield 31-25 on their way to a national title.

The Johnnies have won 13 of their past 14 home playoff games.

Top-seeded Mary Hardin-Baylor (11-0) hosts Berry (10-1) in Belton, Texas, in the other half of the bracket’s quadrant. If Berry and Whitworth win, the Pirates would likely host a quarterfinal matchup.

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