Homecoming at Whitworth isn’t until next month, but Ryan Blair got a head start Saturday.
Three years removed from becoming Mead High School’s all-time passing leader, Blair made a pretty big splash in his first start at the college down the street – throwing for 303 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns as the Pirates made a late breakaway to beat Eastern Oregon 33-7 in their home opener at the Pine Bowl.
“It feels good to get back in there and have that adrenaline rush and be part of a team again,” he said.
In the eyes of Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg, it wasn’t so much what Blair started but what he and the Pirates finished.
A week ago, after a three-time-zone flight to Pittsburgh, the Pirates let their season opener slip away when Carnegie Mellon punched in a couple of scores in the fourth quarter. This time, it was Whitworth with the late juice.
The Pirates needed it.
The visiting Mountaineers (0-3) had been in Whitworth territory on all seven of their possessions through 2 1-2 quarters, with not a thing to show for it. Then they suddenly put together a 74-yard drive – capped by Aiden Patterson’s 35-yard touchdown burst – to pull within 12-7 with 3:30 left in the third quarter.
That’s when the Pirates went turbo.
It started with a gift – an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on EOU after Isaiah Jones couldn’t snag Blair’s pass on third down. With new life, Blair completed five straight passes, and Jet Uechi took it the final two yards on a reverse for the touchdown.
More gifts followed – a shanked punt and Derrick Platt’s strip sack that gave the offense short fields for Blair’s touchdown passes of 4 and 15 yards to Evan Liggett.
“The defense picked us up early when we had some issues on offense, and the offense came right back after the defense gave up that touchdown,” said Sandberg. “We finished in a way we weren’t able to last week.”
Sandberg wasn’t shy about changing things up after just one setback. He dialed up more physical practices for his offensive line after the Pirates were held to negative rushing yardage in Pittsburgh – and enough holes were punched for Whitworth running backs to gain 117 yards.
And he swapped out his fifth-year quarterback, Jaedyn Prewitt, for a transfer who hadn’t taken a snap in two years.
Blair signed with Division II Western Oregon after high school, but never saw the field. He circled back to Whitworth “to be part of something special and come back home,” he said.
“I’m happier in Spokane. It just felt right.”
It was what didn’t feel right to Sandberg that prompted the change.
“We can win with either of those guys,” the coach insisted. “Seventy-five percent of what (Prewitt) did in the first game was great. But we’re going to go with whoever we think gives us the best chance to win, and we thought that was Ryan.”
Blair did have a couple of interceptions that killed prime scoring chances, but he was 27 of 39 for 303 yards. He also started to figure out EOU’s pass rush that crashed in for four sacks and reeled off an 18-yard scramble on that drive after the Mountaineers’ touchdown.
“I thought he showed a lot of poise, especially for a guy who hasn’t started a game in three years,” Sandberg said. “He dealt with pressure and put the ball where his receivers could make plays. He throws such a nice ball.”
Meanwhile, the defense came up with four takeaways of its own, and limited the Mountaineers to just 212 yards of offense.
“We were big on (forcing turnovers) this week in practice,” said defensive end Mason Bertelli, “and creating momentum for the offense by making big plays on the defensive side – which we didn’t do last week.”