In its quest to secure the guaranteed playoff bid tied to the Northwest Conference title, the Whitworth football team can take a big step on Saturday.
The 18th-ranked Pirates (5-0, 3-0 NWC) visit the Puget Sound Loggers (4-2, 2-1), one of three teams that stands a game behind them in the NWC standings. Whitworth already defeated 2-1 Linfield and will host 2-1 Pacific in a week.
The Loggers present a challenge familiar to football fans in Eastern Washington: a high-volume passing attack. They average 369.7 passing yards per game, second most in all of Division III. After Pirates senior Garrett McKay, who leads the NWC in receiving yards, the next three ranked receivers come from Puget Sound.
“They just spread you out and throw a lot of times,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said. “They have good route concepts that really stress you.”
Sandberg emphasized that Whitworth’s defensive backs need to be disciplined and patient.
“Our DBs have got to see the big picture and not get locked up with the guy right in front of them,” he said
In practice this week, the Pirates took the unusual step of pitting their No. 1 offense against their No. 1 defense to prepare for that passing attack, something Sandberg believes his team can match. Normally, the No. 1 units don’t face each other much at all in practice, he said.
Sandberg has repeatedly praised Whitworth’s defensive depth. Last week, two seniors played for the first time of the season: end Weston Kroes and tackle P-Jay Solomon, a starter last year who registered two sacks in the Pirates’ 55-13 victory over Pacific Lutheran. Sandberg expects them to be more involved today.
“That makes us even deeper,” Sandberg said, “which against a team like UPS is good. They wear you down.”
Last year at the Pine Bowl, the Pirates didn’t slow down the Loggers’ offense, which racked up 347 passing yards, but they forced four turnovers, built a 31-7 halftime lead and won 38-23.
This year, Puget Sound is coming off a 23-22 loss to Pacific in which the Loggers missed the potential game-tying extra point with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter.
The Loggers boast one of the better defenses in the conference. They have 11 interceptions and 24 sacks, both of which rank second in the NWC. They are particularly stingy against the pass, allowing 181 yards through the air per game.
That presents an interesting challenge to the relatively balanced Whitworth offense, which ranks second in the NWC in passing and rushing.
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