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Decade of dominance: Defeating Northwest Conference power Linfield at top of to-do list for Whitworth football

A senior with 23 career starts on the Whitworth offensive line, Jacob Hubbard has been part of the football program’s resurgence under fifth-year coach Rod Sandberg.

In the past three seasons, the Pirates have gone 8-2, 8-2, and 9-2, finishing second each year. This year they are off to a 2-0 start.

But what still eludes Hubbard and Sandberg – and has eluded every Whitworth player on the roster in the last 11 years – is a win over Linfield, something only one Northwest Conference program has achieved during the past decade.

“There’s just this persona in the conference, that they are the top dog, the whole David and Goliath thing,” Hubbard said. “They have that Goliath mentality and everyone looks at them like that.”

Whitworth has its chance to topple Goliath on Saturday, when 11th-ranked Linfield visits the Pine Bowl.

It’s a formidable challenge as usual. While Linfield has replaced 10 starters from last year’s defense, the Wildcats have a way of retooling, Hubbard said.

The Pirates are coming off a bye, their second of the month. Linfield (1-1) has a loss already, but it came on the road to Carroll College, an NAIA school , and it only lost 21-14.

Linfield also had a bye last week, so any apparent advantage of extra preparation is perhaps moot.

“They’re good for a reason. They have good coaches, good players and a great history,” Sandberg said. “Their players are confident and believe in what they can do, and we’re trying to get there.

“But I’d like to think that every year, we get a little bit more comfortable, sooner or later we’re going to break that, and I sense a lot of confidence in our leaders and our team.”

Linfield has won the last nine NWC championships. Only once during that reign has it lost a conference game – in 2014, to Willamette.

But that year Pacific Lutheran and Whitworth beat Willamette, so Linfield still claimed the conference title with a 6-1 record.

From 2009-13 Linfield didn’t lose in conference play. Willamette’s late-season win over the Wildcats in 2008 marked the last occasion when anyone except Linfield ended the year atop the NWC standings.

But as Sandberg said, there is confidence among the Pirates that this might be the year they do it – so long as they can play disciplined football.

“I think the question mark will be is, ‘Are we becoming a more disciplined team?’ And I don’t think you find that out until Saturday,” Sandberg said. “It’s something we struggled with in both the first two games.”

Through two games, Whitworth has been flagged for 22 penalties for 244 yards.

It has also committed four turnovers – three in a 38-2 win over LaVerne, one last week in a 31-28 victory over Chapman.

Sandberg said he’s shown his team clips of these sorts of mistakes in other games to drive home the negative impact they can have: Oregon’s failure to run out the clock against Stanford last week, and the roughing-the-passer call that gave the Minnesota Vikings new life late in regulation against the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago.

“We could point out our own, but let’s point out others to say, ‘See how this matters?’ ” Sandberg said. “We have a very aggressive team, and that’s good, but you’ve gotta not let it cost you.”

Last year against Linfield, turnovers were particularly significant. The Pirates gave up five and had two interceptions returned for touchdowns as the Wildcats won 38-9 in McMinnville, Oregon.

Defensive back Shai Pulawa played in that game, when the Pirates gave up a pair of long touchdowns and a 55-yard run.

Like Hubbard, Pulawa is a senior and has seen enough of Linfield to know what a win would mean this weekend.

“For this program and for us this would be great, and that’s one of our big goals,” Pulawa said.

He said that the team is trying to take the year one week at a time, and to treat Linfield like the rest of the teams in the conference.

But still, Pulawa admitted, “This is big.”


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