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Whitworth football caps unique September with crucial game against Linfield

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 28, 2018, 8:37 p.m.

Whitworth’s Garrett McKay  gains yardage on Sept. 15 at Whitworth’s Pine Bowl. McKay averaged 18.8 yards per reception. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth’s Garrett McKay gains yardage on Sept. 15 at Whitworth’s Pine Bowl. McKay averaged 18.8 yards per reception. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Two byes. No road games. In 30 years of coaching, Rod Sandberg has never had a September like this one.

“There’s a lot of uniqueness,” Whitworth’s head coach said at practice this week at the Pine Bowl. “So let’s take advantage of it and make it special.”

A win over the Linfield Wildcats today certainly would make it that for the Pirates program, seeking its first victory in the series since 2007 and just its sixth win since the teams first started meeting in 1954.

The calendar this month is certainly rare. The last time Whitworth played just nine games was 2005, when the Northwest Conference carried only six teams. This year, the Pirates weren’t able to schedule a suitable third nonconference opponent.

As much as the team would like to play more, Sandberg said this calendar has had its advantages. The pattern of game, bye, game, bye, and now game again has kept the team healthier than one might usually be in late September.

The all-home schedule has also allowed for a more pleasant football-family balance for his coaches and players, Sandberg said. It has also allowed plenty of preparation for what might be the team’s two most difficult foes all year: Chapman and 11th-ranked Linfield (1-1).

“I think we’re fresher. You come out of training camp and it’s a grind,” Sandberg said, “so I feel like mentally and physically we’re in a great spot.”

The Pirates’ offense has moved the ball well this year, rushing for an average of 153 yards per game and throwing for 287.5 per contest. But Linfield has a history of great defenses and comes in allowing just 251.5 total yards per game this season.

After a down year in 2017 when the Wildcats finished seventh in the conference in total offense, Linfield – with two bye weeks itself – has moved the ball well in its games this year. It put up 382 yards in a season-opening 21-14 loss at NAIA Carroll College and 339 in a 13-0 win over Redlands two weeks ago.

Keeping that Wildcats offense in check will be made more difficult today without two of Whitworth’s starting linebackers, juniors Kale Wong and Gunnar Swannack.

Swannack injured his hand against La Verne, the week before the Chapman game. He played through it then, but won’t try today.

Wong, a team captain, will miss the first half today because of a targeting penalty against Chapman, when he was called for a blow to the quarterback’s head. Wong’s 18 tackles are second most on the team.

But with the bye, the Pirates have had an extra week to account for those absences, and the team will be nearly full strength for what is arguably the biggest test of the year.

“We got a lot done during the bye,” Sandberg said. “Our confidence continues to grow.”

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