It came down to the last drive of the last regular-season game of the year, but Whitworth showed why its players and coaches believed that this team had the potential to unseat Linfield and capture the Northwest Conference title.
Whitworth trailed for the majority of the game, but the Pirates (9-0, 7-0) knocked off the previously undefeated Wildcats (8-1, 6-1) 28-24 in front of a loud crowd in McMinnville, Oregon, on Saturday, giving the team an automatic bid into NCAA Division III playoffs.
Following a missed Linfield field-goal attempt, the Pirates took over possession with a three-point deficit and just more than 5 minutes to play.
Quarterback Austin Ewing shook off a three-interception night to lead a 14-play, 75-yard drive , capping it off with a 5-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Evan Liggett with 29 seconds left.
The ensuing Linfield drive amounted to nothing before the Pirates celebrated at midfield.
“I’m just really, really proud of our players,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said. “They played so hard and just believed. It’s a tough place to go play. They just kept playing. They just kept swinging.”
Linfield got off to a hot start, scoring on its opening drive and displaying its well-rounded and experienced offense.
Linfield sophomore quarterback Luke McNabb, who filled in for injured senior quarterback Blake Eaton for a second straight game, racked up 354 passing yards and three touchdowns, but also had an interception and a fumble.
Four plays into Whitworth’s opening drive, Linfield senior cornerback Justin Pfau intercepted Ewing. The Wildcats quickly scored again to take a 14-0 lead, and the game appeared set for the kind of blowout Linfield had been handing out to conference opponents all season long.
But the Pirates buttoned down on defense and the offense scrapped back into the game, courtesy of a 60-yard touchdown catch by senior receiver Dillon Kuk and a crafty play that saw sophomore running back Luis Salgado pitch the ball to Ewing for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Linfield’s tough run defense lived up to its reputation, holding Whitworth’s running backs to 37 yards on 10 carries.
But the Pirates found success with Ewing’s arm, and the graduate transfer from Southern Utah totaled 338 yards and two touchdowns to go with his three turnovers.
“He just kept swinging, he just kept playing, he just kept trusting himself and knowing that he could do it,” Sandberg said of Ewing. “He’s a gunslinger … At the end, he was incredible.”
Kuk paced the Pirates with 12 catches for 154 yards. Liggett, sophomore Caelin Johnson and senior Jarvis Natividad all made catches in crucial moments.
Coming out of halftime leading 17-14, the Wildcats scored again midway through the third quarter to extend their lead to 24-14. But a 7-yard touchdown run from Pirates senior running back Solo Hines put the game back within reach in the fourth quarter.
The Linfield offense and senior running back Connor McNabb, the older brother of Luke McNabb, marched back down the field, setting up a 42-yard field-goal attempt that just sailed right of the uprights.
With the ball in his hands and a chance to win the game, Ewing directed the winning drive.
“We just knew that if we had that ball and had the opportunity, we wanted to be the last team punching out there,” Ewing said.
The win snapped Linfield’s run of four straight conference titles and handed the Wildcats their first conference loss since 2018 – the last time the Pirates won the title.
The Pirates will learn Monday what team they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a team – in a lot of years of coaching – that started or showed up in August at one place, and grew, and grew, and grew, and grew so much within one season,” Sandberg said. “… We had a dream of what we could be.
“Just to see them continue to work, and believe and trust and grow was really, really fun and rewarding as a coach to watch.”