It was halftime. Inside the locker room, with the Whitworth Pirates trailing by a touchdown, head coach Rod Sandberg found a half-empty bottle of maple syrup.
He picked it up. “Whose is this?” he asked. The offensive linemen claimed it.
Sandberg read the label. “Is this light syrup?” he asked, then chucked the bottle to the ground.
“We all started cheering,” sophomore linebacker Iain Black said. “It was awesome. It got us riled.”
It sure did.
Whitworth came out of halftime and held Linfield without another first down until the final play of the third quarter. By then the Pirates’ offense had started rolling, and Whitworth earned a 19-14 come-from-behind victory over Linfield on Saturday at the Pine Bowl. It was the program’s first over the Wildcats since 2007 and only the Pirates’ sixth in the 45-game series.
Senior receiver Garrett McKay touched the ball 19 times – including his catch of Linfield’s attempted onside kick with 12 seconds left – for 240 all-purpose yards. That included 12 receptions for 122 yards and the 31-yard touchdown that put the Pirates ahead for good midway through the third quarter.
“It’s almost nice to have it over with,” McKay said of the streak-breaking victory, “because there is so much hype and so much buildup. Our goal is to win the Northwest Conference, and so this obviously is a piece of it, but nowhere do we talk about our goal is to beat Linfield.
“It feels good, and it feels like it was a long time coming.”
Whitworth (3-0, 1-0 NWC) became the first conference team to beat 11th-ranked Linfield (1-2, 0-1) since 2014. It did so by shutting down the Wildcats’ running game and by employing a balanced offensive attack.
Linfield junior running back Chidubem Nnoli was stymied, carrying 16 times for 29 yards with a long of 8. That was especially the case after halftime, when the Wildcats’ first four drives ended in a punt, a fumble, and two more punts.
The fumble – forced by junior Kale Wong, who served a first-half suspension for targeting two weeks ago – was especially crucial. On the play before, Pirates quarterback Leif Ericksen had thrown an interception in his own half of the field with his team still trailing by a touchdown.
That was after a first half in which the Pirates lost a fumble at the Linfield 11-yard line on their opening drive, missed a field goal and had another attempt blocked.
“The biggest thing was staying calm,” Black said of the defense, which registered seven sacks. “We have faith in our offense and knew they were going to do their job. We knew that if we kept getting stops, the offense would do their thing.”
Finally, they did.
After the fumble recovery, the Pirates picked up the pace and scored three unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter to take a 19-7 lead. The first was a 22-yard scramble by Ericksen, not usually known for his fleet feet.
“I was looking to throw and I saw room in front of me,” Ericksen said. “Garrett (McKay) made a great block and I got in.”
The Pirates missed the extra point wide right, but the defense – which gave up just 83 yards in the second half – quickly got the ball back two more times.
After Ericksen connected with McKay for the 31-yard touchdown that gave the Pirates the lead for good, he pumped his fists in the air and the cannon fired as the crowd cheered.
Mason Elms scored from 1 yard out on the next drive to make it 19-7.
Linfield’s final touchdown came on a desperate heave with 12 seconds left – a 27-yard connection from Wyatt Smith to Aiden Wilder – but McKay calmly scooped up the subsequent onside kick, and the Pirates downed the ball to drain the clock.
Ericksen finished 23 of 35 for 241 yards. The Pirates ran 39 times for 105 yards.
After the game, family, friends and former players lingered on Puryear Field in conversation and hugs with players and coaches.
“There has been a lot of work put in, not just by this group but by the groups before us to get us closer, to get us to a point where we feel confident competing against (Linfield),” McKay said. “We had so many guys who had played the last few years who were here, a lot of our coaches played here. … I hope that they can share this experience.”
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