Down by two points, 5 minutes to play, without a touchdown or even a single snap inside the opponent’s 20-yard line the entire day.
So what were the Whitworth Pirates thinking at that point Saturday afternoon?
“No better place to be right now than having a chance to prove what we’re worth,” backup receiver Jarvis Natividad said.
Surely they felt like a million bucks after pulling out a 12-7 football victory over the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags in the final 85 seconds – a little flare pass from Ryan Blair to Logan Kitselman accounting for the final 5 yards and the Pirates’ lone touchdown.
That poise and some uncanny defensive mettle made for some high drama at the Pine Bowl – or at least medium high, seeing as how each team made it as hard on itself as each other.
But in the fourth quarter, the Pirates made every play they had to.
Take that go-ahead possession. Before the touchdown pass – his fifth completion of the drive – Blair eluded what would have been a damaging sack to throw incomplete, scrambled for a 6-yard gain and then fell on teammate Riley Morrison’s fumble inside the CMS 5 – all game-saving efforts.
And yet the biggest emotional boost was undoubtedly a short toss that Natividad turned into a 22-yard gain by juking the Stags’ Kirby Baynes.
“After that, it was just backyard football,” he said, “trying to make guys miss and doing my thing.”
Whether it was that kind of nonchalance or a steely focus on the stakes of last-chance football, Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg enjoyed the result.
“We talk all off-season about mental toughness – how do we practice it and get better at it and how does it carry over into a game,” he said. “I’m so proud of this team for that, because it takes toughness when you have your back to the wall to come through.”
The Stags put Whitworth there with a 10-play, 6-minute touchdown drive to end the first quarter featuring the iron tumbleweed stylings of Justin Edwards, an all-league running back as a freshman for the California school. That 7-0 lead was what the Pirates expected to have after their first series, before an offensive pass interference penalty and a third-down sack blew up what had been a crisp drive.
“That really plays into their hands,” Sandberg said. “Now we’re playing their game for the rest of the day, because they’re huge and they just love to grind it out.”
And when the Stags got away from that – even just for a moment – it was problematic.
Midway through the second quarter, an underthrown deep ball by Blair was deflected into an interception. CMS took a flag for a chop block that moved them back to the 12-yard line, and rather than hunker down with Edwards and punting out of trouble, the Stags decided to try the air. That’s when Whitworth linebacker Derrick Platt roared through for two sacks – the second for a safety.
“I was dropping back into coverage,” Platt said. “But the quarterback had panic in his eyes and no one was in my zone, so I saw the open lane and attacked.”
That and a career-high 43-yard field goal by Alvaro Campos-Ontiveros got deficit down to 7-5 at halftime. But the Stags held the ball for 13:34 of the third quarter, and were on the verge of taking the game by the throat when Platt flattened Zach Fogel again on a quarterback sweep and Jacob Hogger and JT Munoz converged on Edwards on fourth-and-4.
Edwards carried 22 times for 94 yards that seemed like 194, but wasn’t in the lineup for CMS’ last-minute plays after the go-ahead TD. Without that dimension, Whitworth’s pass defense didn’t allow a completion.
“That guy is tough,” Platt said. “We did more tackle drills this week than we’ve ever done. We collided a lot today and I’m not going to lie – those were some of the biggest hits I’ve taken.”
The Pirates (2-1) take a weekend off before opening Northwest Conference play on Oct. 1 at Lewis & Clark.
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