Coming off the first of their two September bye weeks, the Whitworth Pirates are in Orange, California, on Saturday to close out their two-game nonconference schedule against the Chapman Panthers.
The circumstances are similar to the last time these teams met in California, in 2015, a game the Pirates won 37-7. Whitworth hasn’t played a football game at night since then – kickoff is at 7 p.m. – and is again looking to close out its nonconference slate undefeated just as it did four seasons ago, when it went 9-2 and played in the Division III playoffs.
“High school kids play under the lights,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “It’s fun for our guys to relive that.”
But Sandberg said the 10th-ranked Pirates will need to play better than they did two weeks ago in a 50-24 road victory over La Verne if they hope to reach 2-0 for the third consecutive season.
“We have a chance to be a really talented team, and that’s exciting,” Sandberg said. “We did not necessarily play to our potential against La Verne, and that was frustrating.”
The team set a goal of winning the turnover battle by two every game this season, Sandberg said, but the opposite was true in the opener: The Pirates lost two fumbles, threw an interception and got just one interception back.
Whitworth also committed 10 penalties, following a trend from a year ago when it was flagged for 10.5 per game, two more than any other team in the Northwest Conference.
Yet the offense, led by senior quarterback Leif Ericksen, was stellar. Ericksen wasn’t sacked, completed 21 of 29 attempts for 288 yards and threw five touchdowns in the first half before giving way to backup Connor Johnson. Three of Ericksen’s touchdowns went to junior receiver Andrew Meredith, who will start this week at “Y” receiver in place of injured senior Taylor Hall.
“Our offense is predicated on throwing to the open guy, and he happened to be the open guy in those situations, and he took advantage of it,” Sandberg said of Meredith, who had 89 yards on his only three receptions of the game.
The Pirates’ defense will face a more formidable challenge against the Panthers (1-0 overall), who ran for 395 yards on 53 carries two weeks ago in a 45-14 victory at Pacific (Oregon) from the NWC.
“They really keep you off balance, and it’s hard to choose what you want to try to stop,” Sandberg said.
A year ago at the Pine Bowl, Chapman outgained Whitworth 520-424 in total yards, though the Pirates held on for a 31-28 victory, their seventh in the programs’ 10 meetings since 2000. In that game, the Pirates finished plus-3 in the turnover ratio.
The Pirates will have another bye next week before opening conference play at home against Willamette on Oct. 5.
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