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Despite early season setbacks, Whitworth hosts Linfield with playoff hopes still alive

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 7, 2019

Whitworth quarterback Leif Ericksen  runs for a 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter against Linfield on Sept. 29, 2018. at the Whitworth Pine Bowl. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth quarterback Leif Ericksen runs for a 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter against Linfield on Sept. 29, 2018. at the Whitworth Pine Bowl. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Healthier than they have been since the start of the season, the Whitworth Pirates jogged out to the Pine Bowl for practice this week confident that they are about to peak at just at the right time.

A Northwest Conference championship is essentially on the line at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, as the Pirates are looking to put together their best game of the year when Linfield visits Spokane for the second year in a row.

“We still haven’t played to our potential,” said Taylor Hall, a senior receiver and team captain. “I think all we have to do is play to our potential, play our game, play Pirate football for 60 minutes. We don’t have to do anything special. We just have to be consistent all the way through.”

Whitworth (5-2, 4-1 NWC) swept the conference and went 10-1 overall a year ago but hasn’t been as consistent this year.

A big reason for that has been a series of injuries at key positions. Junior defensive end Charlie Ball, tied for second on the team with three sacks, has missed three games. Senior end Andrew McCoy, the team’s leader in sacks with six, missed the 34-23 loss to Puget Sound.

So did starting quarterback Leif Ericksen, who has played all year without the team’s top two running backs from a year ago behind him: Mason Elms, who graduated; and senior Tariq Ellis, who suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason.

Aside from Ellis, though, the Pirates’ offense is basically at full health. Apart from junior all-conference linebacker Jaylen Gonzales, who hasn’t played since the team’s first three games, Whitworth’s defense is back to its full starting group from early September.

That gives McCoy confidence that the team he’ll take the field with on Saturday is capable of beating Linfield.

“I think the biggest thing is being ourselves,” McCoy said. “I’ve been talking to the entire defensive line this week and saying, ‘You know, it’s not gonna take anything spectacular. We just need to play our game.’ We’re really confident with what we can do up front on the defensive line.”

Whitworth’s nonconference loss, while it cost the Pirates its chance of hosting a playoff game, doesn’t look that bad now. Chapman (7-0), which hosted and beat Whitworth 37-30 on Sept. 21, is No. 3 in the West Region rankings released on Wednesday. Linfield (6-1, 5-0) came in at No. 6.

Despite the loss at Puget Sound, a victory over Linfield – which Whitworth beat 19-14 a year ago – paired with a win at Pacific (3-5, 3-2) the following week, would clinch a second straight NWC title for the Pirates.

Only twice have the Pirates beat the Wildcats in back-to-back seasons, most recently in 2006 and 2007. Linfield leads the overall series 37-6-2.

“We’re in a championship game and we want to enjoy that,” Pirates coach Rod Sandberg said. “We’re playing a great opponent, and we just need to go fight for it.”

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