The way the 32-team Division III football playoffs are structured, with only five at-large bids available, the Whitworth Pirates’ surest way to reach the postseason was to win the Northwest Conference.
Whitworth lost at Chapman 37-30 on Saturday night, evening the Pirates’ record at 1-1 at the end of their brief two-game nonconference schedule. It was the sixth time sixth-year coach Rod Sandberg had taken the Pirates to play in California, and it was the first time they returned to Spokane without a victory.
It was also their first loss to a team from the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference since 2014, dropping their regular-season record against the only other D-III conference in the Pacific time zone to 11-2 over that span (the other loss also came to Chapman, at the Pine Bowl in 2014).
The Pirates won’t play again until Oct. 5 at home against Willamette. So the defeat, which ended Whitworth’s 14-game regular-season winning streak, gets to simmer an extra week thanks to their second bye of the month.
Whitworth players took the field for a walk-through on Monday evening, resolved to make things right and to ensure that the loss in California is the only one of their 2019 campaign.
“We’ve gone back to the film, reviewed it, (and) seen that we obviously haven’t played up to what we think is our potential,” junior running back Brayden Corona said. “We have the bye week now, which is great, so, go back to the drawing board and take a good, clean look at ourselves in the mirror and correct what needs to be corrected.”
The Pirates had an early 7-0 lead against Chapman, and their defense forced three-and-outs on three of the Panthers’ first four possessions. But Whitworth’s offense only mustered the one score in the first quarter, after which the Pirates led 7-6.
Then the Pirates’ problems mounted. Isain Wong-Lonzanida fumbled on a punt return at his 14-yard line, leading to a Chapman touchdown. Later in the second quarter, Noah Alejado’s punt was blocked and recovered by Chapman at the 8-yard line, which led to another score.
At halftime, the Pirates trailed 27-13. The never pulled even after that.
“You give them a lead, you give them energy, they start to believe,” Sandberg said of Chapman (2-0). “You could just see, they started to believe that they could beat us and they could play with us, and you could tell by their celebration after the game that they thought they did something really special.”
It was the rare game in which the Pirates struggled in all three phases, Sandberg said.
“We didn’t play to our potential in offense, defense or special teams,” he said. “We’ve had games in the past where we haven’t played exceptionally well in one of those areas, or even sometimes two, but the other one has carried us, and that was not the case (on Saturday).”
The loss dropped the Pirates from 10th to 21st in the d3football.com rankings. They weren’t the only NWC team to take a hit: Linfield also lost Saturday in California, 27-19 to Redlands (3-0), dropping the Wildcats to 22nd, right behind the Pirates.
Every team in the NWC has at least one loss, so almost certainly only its champion will reach the playoffs, riding the conference’s automatic bid.
Pirates players said being conference champions – for the second year in a row – was the focus all along. The defeat in California didn’t change that.
“You don’t plan on losing; you never do. But I think overall the team’s responding really well,” senior safety Zach Hillman said. “It served as a wake-up call for us. … The determination and the drive that I see in everyone’s eyes right now, I think we’re gonna use this to end up being really good (this) season.”
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