Two-thirds through their nine-game schedule, the 14th-ranked Whitworth Pirates enter Saturday’s home game against Pacific in position to all but clinch the Northwest Conference title.
But there’s still something haunting the Pirates that coach Rod Sandberg would like to tighten up before it costs them a game: penalties.
Sandberg would rather he didn’t need to harp on this any more. Yet after his team was flagged 16 times in their 47-13 victory last Saturday at Puget Sound, inching the Pirates’ average over 100 penalty yards per game, the coach couldn’t ignore it.
“We cannot let success and winning and being out front let us get soft or let us relax for just a second,” Sandberg said. “We have to keep the pedal down, and by human nature that’s hard to do. … That’s why we got after them (earlier) and why we’re gonna get after them later.”
Accordingly, the Pirates were doing extra sprints well past sunset after practice this week.
There hasn’t been much else for Sandberg and his staff to be upset over, because the Pirates (6-0, 4-0 NWC) enter Saturday’s game doing most everything else well.
They lead the NWC in several statistical categories, notably offensive yards per game (470.3), third-down conversions (43 percent) and points per game with 38.
While they can technically lose a game and still win the conference, a defeat would be costly.
The Boxers (4-3, 3-1) are the only other team to control its destiny in the NWC. Pacific’s offense hasn’t been spectacular, at 289.6 yards per game, but its defense has a talent for disruption, with a conference-best 32 sacks and 14 fumble recoveries.
The Pirates, on the other hand, haven’t turned over the ball or ceded a sack in three straight games. In addition, they have taken early leads and forced their opponents to all but abandon the running game to try to catch up.
That has allowed coaches to “turn the dogs loose,” Sandberg said, and the Pirates are spending a lot of time in opposing backfields: They rank second in NCAA Division III with 11.2 tackles for loss per game, and in the past three games they have 14 sacks. They also have the second-best turnover ratio in D-III.
“We value the football,” Sandberg said. “I put up every single week our team turnover margin: We’re at plus-11 for the year. It’s not the best in the country, but it’s good. But we want to be the best.”
The Pirates host Lewis & Clark (2-4, 1-3) next week before the regular-season finale at Willamette (1-5, 0-4) on Nov. 10.
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