Upon release of the Northwest Conference schedule earlier this year, it seemed destined that the regular-season finale between Whitworth and Linfield would have playoff implications.
Sure enough, just more than two months after the season kicked off, the Pirates and Wildcats are both boasting undefeated conference and overall records (8-0, 6-0) and hungry to capture the conference title – and an automatic postseason bid – come Saturday’s 1 p.m. game in McMinnville, Oregon.
The programs have had plenty of notable late-season clashes over the years, but this weekend’s matchup will mark the first time in NWC history that two unbeaten teams will meet in the final regular-season game.
Pirates players and coaches are well aware of the stakes. They have preached all season that this team was capable of dethroning longtime powerhouse Linfield and winning the conference.
But Whitworth head coach Rod Sandberg’s message to his players is simple.
“Be who we are,” Sandberg said. “Don’t do anything different; don’t do anything special. This is what brought us here, we are going to be who we are. We’re going to prepare well and we’re going to love the opportunity to go compete for a championship.”
Austin Ewing, the graduate transfer from Southern Utah, has taken the helm of the Pirates’ well-balanced offensive attack and is 81 yards short of 2,000 passing yards . He identified selflessness and a steady mentality as to what drives the team’s success.
“We had that mentality where we wanted to win each week, so we didn’t look at anything ahead or anything behind us, but everything behind us, we learned from,” Ewing said.
While the offense has thrived with Ewing under center, the Pirates’ defense has been equally impressive, averaging more than four sacks per game – good for second in all of NCAA Division III – and leading the NWC in tackles for loss per game.
But the Pirates’ defense will have its hands full with a similarly dynamic Linfield offense, led by junior quarterback Blake Eaton and senior running back Connor McNabb, who averages nearly 7 yards per carry on the year. Blake Rybar, reigning NWC Defensive Player of the Year, commands a stingy Wildcats defense.
“They are really well-coached and they have talented players – that’s a good combination and that’s what great teams have,” Sandberg said. “They are really fun to compete against because they’re not just doing all this crazy stuff. They have a system and line up in it and say, ‘We’re going to be better than you.’ You just have to go toe-to-toe and see who’s got it.”
With the exception of a come-from-behind victory over George Fox last weekend, the Pirates have cruised through conference play. The Wildcats, however, have been just as dominant, outscoring conference opponents 307-92 and posting blowouts on a weekly basis.
Linfield is ranked fourth in the AFCA Division III coaches poll. Whitworth is receiving votes.
“Obviously, we’re not going to take these guys lightly, but we have to prepare just like any other week … and put our head down and get to work,” senior receiver Evan Liggett said after Saturday’s win against George Fox. “I know our (offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator) and head coach – they are going to have a great plan. I know it’s going to be intense in practice and we’re going to go after each other and make each other better just like we’ve done all year. We know what’s on the line and we’re going to be coming right out of the gate.”
The Wildcats, amidst their record-breaking 67th consecutive winning season, are looking to secure their fifth straight NWC title. Linfield’s last conference loss was in 2018, when the Pirates also took the conference championship. Prior to that, Whitworth’s last win over Linfield dates back to 2007.
Sandberg emphasizes winning the turnover margin and taking the edge in special teams to walk away with a win this weekend
“The offense is going to have to trust the defense and the defense is going to trust the offense,” Ewing said. “It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a fun game. It’s football, so it’s not going to be perfect, and not everything will go our way. When things don’t go our way, we have to lean on our brothers.”