After playing an underwhelming game of football a week before, one littered with penalties and turnovers, the Whitworth Pirates sorted out one of those problems Saturday against Pacific Lutheran.
They still committed 15 penalties, but not committing any turnovers was enough on this day.
The Pirates beat the Lutes with relative ease at the Pine Bowl on Saturday, a 31-6 victory that, paired with Pacific’s win over Puget Sound, allows the Pirates to control their own playoff fate.
“It was a great feeling today,” said senior linebacker Gunnar Swannack, who returned an interception 56 yards for his first career touchdown. “It’s in our hands, which is nice. It’s nice to know that we control what happens.”
The Pirates (5-2 overall, 4-1 Northwest Conference) host No. 24 Linfield (6-1, 5-0) Saturday and conclude the regular season at Pacific. If Whitworth wins both, it will be the NWC champion.
Lose either one, though, and the Pirates won’t be back in the playoffs after advancing to the second round a year ago.
A week ago, Whitworth committed four turnovers and lost 34-23 to Puget Sound, its first defeat against the Loggers since 1995.
But against PLU (1-6, 0-5), Whitworth’s offense had no turnovers, and its defense forced four.
That gave the Pirates a distinct advantage in field position. Not once did the Lutes start a drive in Pirates’ territory, and the visitors didn’t reach the red zone until the game’s final 5 minutes.
That made it much easier for the defense to execute its game plan, which junior cornerback Bryce Hornbeck said was to limit running back Cody Brown.
“First of all, stop their run, stop No. 20,” he said, referring to Brown. “Then, let the rest take care of itself. Once we forced them into third-and-long, we felt comfortable in the pass game that we could have success.”
Brown finished with 86 yards on 17 carries. PLU quarterback Bryce Missey completed 19 of 33 attempts for 162 yards and three interceptions. He also fumbled deep in his own zone, setting up a Pirates touchdown. PLU went 5 of 16 on third down.
PLU ran eight more plays that Whitworth and held the ball for nearly 37 minutes. But the Lutes didn’t have a drive go farther than 50 yards until their late touchdown drive.
By then, the Pirates’ offense had done more than enough with the turnovers given to it. Hornbeck had two interceptions, the first which came on a deep pass at the Whitworth 1-yard line. It was scoreless at the time.
The Pirates then drove 99 yards on 12 plays, capped by a 3-yard run by Isaiah Cole. Two PLU drives later, Missey’s fumble was picked up by Iain Black and returned to the 2-yard line. A play later, Connor Johnson rushed in for the touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Leif Ericksen started at quarterback after missing the Pirates’ loss last week. He completed 26 of 43 attempts for 328 yards.
Midway through the third quarter, Ericksen found fellow senior Nick McGill for a 44-yard touchdown pass and a 24-0 lead. It capped a career day for McGill, who led the Pirates with six receptions for 93 yards.
The ensuing PLU drive ended with Swannack’s interception return, which made the score 31-0.
Earlier in the game, Hornbeck had a second interception and returned it for a touchdown as well – but the score was nullified by a holding call on the return.
The Pirates now turn their focus to Linfield, a team they beat 19-14 last year at the Pine Bowl.
“Whitworth’s a place where we’re gonna play meaningful games late in the year, and that’s what this is,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “Next Saturday here will be a championship game, and those are fun to be in. We’re gonna embrace that moment, and we’re gonna play free.”
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