The Whitworth football team hopes all reasons for high expectations will be on display Saturday when the Pirates make their regular-season home debut.
Whitworth (2-0) hasn’t played a meaningful game at the Pine Bowl save an exhibition that was more of a glorified practice. The Pirates’ home debut is also their Northwest Conference opener when Pacific Lutheran (1-2) visits. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
The Pirates talked in the preseason about challenging for a conference championship. To do so, they’ll have to be at their best in a conference that appears to be competitive top to bottom.
Whitworth is coming off a bye and has had plenty of time to prepare for its home debut. The Pirates used the bye week to sharpen fundamentals and execution, coach Rod Sandberg said.
What has Sandberg learned about his 2-0 team since it started the season Aug. 10?
“Football matters to them,” Sandberg said of his players. “They want to reach their potential and not be satisfied with the results of the last couple of years.”
The Pirates came into the season with a distinct objective of improving their offensive line, the area most impacted by graduation.
“We had one returning starter, but we moved him to a different position (from left guard to center),” Sandberg said. “Those guys figuring each other out … they’ve improved each week. They keep getting better and better. If they continue to grow and perform, we’ve got a chance.”
Sandberg saw moments of what he anticipated in his team’s 24-17 win over Chapman, also an NCAA Division III team from Orange, California.
Defensive back Daniel McKeirnan, a junior from Gonzaga Prep, had an interception in the final 2 minutes that preserved the win.
“This year we’ve had a combination of new and hungry guys as well as older guys who are experienced, and it took us a bit to get used to each other’s play style and come together as a defense,” said McKeirnan, who leads the Pirates with 14 tackles and two interceptions. “We’re just hoping to make a statement coming out in the (conference opener). PLU is a solid team and we’ve got to come out firing.”
Whitworth’s win at Chapman told Sandberg a lot about his team.
“It was big for a couple reasons,” Sandberg said. “First of all, they’re a very good football team. To do that on the road shows a little bit of resolve. I could just sense on the sideline that our guys were not going to lose that game. It was really a fun game to coach and be part of.”
Quarterback Austin Ewing, a graduate transfer from Southern Utah University, has led the offense. He has thrown for 386 yards, completing 32 of 48 attempts (66.6%) with three touchdowns, one interception and a rushing score.
“We need to start faster,” said Ewing, of Kaelakekua, Hawaii. “We haven’t scored on our first drive yet.”
Ewing is looking forward to his first game at the Pine Bowl.
“It excites me a lot,” Ewing said. “I’ve heard amazing stories about how the crowd is at home games.”
Sandberg knows Ewing and his first-time players are in for a treat.
“We love playing in the Pine Bowl. We love the environment,” he said. “We’ve been blessed to be pretty good here, pretty salty here since we put in this turf.”