Whitworth’s undefeated season and playoff run finally reached an end.
The Pirates (10-1) struggled to find an offensive rhythm and fell to the Wartburg College Knights 42-20 in snowy Waverly, Iowa, during the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Fresh off a 42-28 first-round home win against Chapman (California) in the Pine Bowl last weekend, Whitworth had no answers for the experienced Knights, who won the American Rivers Conference with a stout run defense and complete offensive attack.
Wartburg (12-0) finished the season ranked third in the AFCA Division III coaches poll, in which Whitworth was 18th.
“First and foremost, Wartburg has a very, very good defense and (is) very well-coached,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said after the game. “They got some guys that can fly around and you think you got something, and then all of a sudden it closes up pretty quickly.”
After winning the toss and electing to receive first, the Pirates drove into Knights territory, but an incompletion on fourth down gave the Knights the ball in their home stadium.
Wartburg’s offense, loaded with fifth-year seniors, marched down the field and took the lead on a 1-yard rush by running back Hunter Clasen, the conference’s MVP.
The Pirates showed some fight on their next drive.
Whitworth quarterback Austin Ewing spread the ball around to several receivers, including a 44-yarder to senior receiver Evan Liggett. Ewing then found senior receiver Dillon Kuk for a 2-yard touchdown, although a missed extra point by freshman kicker Iden Bone – his first of the season – left Whitworth trailing 7-6.
But penalties, defensive pressure on Ewing and an inability to run the ball shut down the Whitworth offense, which went without points or a first down for the remainder of the first half.
“I think in the second quarter, their defensive line really asserted itself and made it really challenging for us,” Sandberg said.
Nile McLaughlin, the Knights’ fifth-year quarterback, opened up the game in the second quarter, leading three scoring drives, including a last-second 3-yard pass to senior receiver Drake George as the first half expired. Wartburg entered halftime with a 28-6 lead.
“I was not seeing the field as well as I wanted to see it … and I wasn’t trusting my reads enough,” said Ewing, who took the blame for the offense’s quiet stretch.
Pirates running backs, senior Solo Hines and sophomore Luis Salgado, were held to 5 rushing yards at halftime.
The Knights continued to run away with the game in the third quarter. McLaughlin connected with George and senior receiver Thor Maakestad got behind the Pirates defense for long touchdowns.
McLaughlin completed 25 of 31 passes for 352 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. George led the receivers with 124 yards and two touchdowns.
“We made a commitment to try to stop (Clasen) and I thought we did a solid job in the first half,” Sandberg said. “… It was really their passing and their quarterback and receivers that made some plays. … I thought they did a great job attacking us in the passing game.”
Ewing threw touchdowns to Salgado and Hines in the fourth quarter, but the game was well out of reach .
Ewing completed 34 of 48 passes for 296 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. Liggett racked up 119 receiving yards and Kuk had 90 .
The loss puts a cap on an accomplished season for the Pirates, who, despite entering the year with some positional question marks, finished with a Northwest Conference title over Linfield and a playoff victory. The second-round finish matches the program’s previous best since joining the NCAA.
“I’m really, really, really proud of this group of players,” Sandberg said. “They restored Whitworth football to what we think it is, could and should be. They set a standard that is really high for (future) teams to follow.”
Next year’s Pirates will be without Ewing, the graduate transfer from Southern Utah who won NWC Offensive Player of the Year, as well as other important offensive and defensive senior players. But the team will return Salgado, offensive linemen Patton Miller and Dillon Helle – first-team All-NWC honorees – and a large chunk of the talented defense.
“This season showed us what it takes and what it can be and what it’s like,” Sandberg said. “I think that next year’s team now knows that and can start at a little different of a place.”