The Whitworth Pirates gave up 460 air yards, yet their pass defense was one of the main reasons they won.
Their running game didn’t do much, but it delivered a touchdown at a crucial juncture in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Leif Ericksen, known for his throwing ability, passed for 324 yards but added a rushing touchdown. So-called running quarterback Connor Johnson came through with a rushing touchdown but also tossed a beautiful 54-yard deep ball that was erased by a penalty.
Garrett McKay had seven catches for 132 yards, and the game tape will show he also made several key blocks to spring teammates.
In other words, Whitworth did what it had to do to remain unbeaten, turning back Chapman 31-28 Saturday at the Pine Bowl.
“We live for these moments. Games like this bring out the best in us,” said linebacker Jaylen Gonzales, who intercepted two passes. “Our defense is so tight, our offense, too. I have a good, good feeling about this team.”
The Pirates (2-0) led by 17 after Johnson’s 16-yard touchdown run with 9:04 left in the third quarter.
The visitors from Southern California made the Pirates squirm in the fourth quarter. Strong-armed quarterback Ian Fieber zipped a scoring pass to Trevor Vill and scored on a keeper to trim Whitworth’s lead to 24-21 with 12:12 remaining.
Whitworth answered when Mason Elms burst through the right side of the line and raced 46 yards for a touchdown, accounting for nearly half of the team’s rushing yardage (93).
“We were up, so we wanted to keep running clock,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “Sometimes you have to be patient with the run game.”
Gonzales intercepted Fieber for the second time and rover Shai Pulawa registered his second pick one series later.
The Pirates couldn’t capitalize on the turnovers, giving the ball back after a pair of three-and-outs. Fieber led another touchdown drive, but by the time the Panthers got the ball back at their 17 they only had 21 seconds to work with and no timeouts.
Chad Wilburg sacked Fieber on the game’s final play.
“I was telling our guys to be patient,” Sandberg said. “They’re a well-coached team, you knew they were going to keep fighting. I’m proud of our guys for fighting, too.”
The Pirates fought through an ominous start. Their first three plays went backward and Fieber fired a 52-yard touchdown strike to Dominic Vaccher for a 7-0 lead.
The Pirates continued to go nowhere – their first four possessions resulted in one first down via penalty – before finding success with quick passes and a speedy no-huddle offense.
Ericksen found Taylor Koste five times – the last connection sending Koste to the sideline with his left arm in a sling a few minutes later – and Taylor Hall twice to move the ball to Chapman’s 37. Nick McGill used every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to outjump a cornerback for 31 yards. Ericksen took it in from 4 yards out to tie it at 7 late in the first quarter.
Whitworth’s defense kept Chapman off the scoreboard the rest of the half with three punts, an interception, a stop on downs thanks to Kale Wong’s big hit on fourth-and-1 and a blocked field goal.
McKay made a nifty move to elude a defender on a 37-yard pass play and Ericksen, while being dragged down in the backfield, somehow hit Bryce Powers for a 14-yard touchdown.
The Pirates worked the clock to perfection on their last series of the half, taking a 17-7 lead on Kevin Ramsey’s 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds. The drive nearly didn’t take flight, but the Panthers were flagged for a late hit after stopping the Pirates on third down. McKay’s 28-yard catch-and-run put Whitworth in field-goal range.
The Pirates, who were coming off a bye, have another bye next week before entertaining Northwest Conference kingpin Linfield on Sept. 29.
“We’re going to rest up, watch a lot of film, take care of our bodies and come out fighting,” Gonzales said.
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