Last year, the Linfield Wildcats wanted to run the ball against the Whitworth Pirates, but couldn’t.
This year, the Wildcats want to air it out.
How the Pirates handle their rival’s new offensive identity will be crucial Saturday, when the top two teams in the Northwest Conference meet at 12:30 p.m. at the Pine Bowl with a playoff bid on the line.
“They’re gonna try to throw the ball. They’re really good at that. That’s what they want to do,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said of Linfield. “That’s their identity this year.”
Linfield junior Wyatt Smith has thrown 32 touchdown passes, third most among Division III quarterbacks nationally. His passer rating of 201.2 is second only to D’Angelo Fulford at Mount Union, the top-ranked team in the d3football.com Top 25.
“Their running back left from last year, and their scheme is a lot different,” Pirates sophomore cornerback Colten Chelin said. “But yeah, I think (Smith has) gotten quite a bit better.”
When the Pirates beat the visiting Wildcats 19-14 at the Pine Bowl last season, running back Chidubem Nnoli carried 16 times for a season-low 29 yards. The Pirates were the only NWC team to hold him under 100 yards, and Nnoli went on to lead the conference with 945 rushing yards.
But without him in the fold, the Wildcats (6-1, 5-0 NWC) have adapted their offense to suit their strengths, and it is most definitely working.
Smith is averaging 75 more passing yards per game than he did a year ago and has completed 70.8% of his throws, up from 62% last year. The Wildcats have scored 302 points in five conference games, and their overall average of 50.9 points per game is third best nationally.
The Linfield defense allows 260.4 yards per game, just a bit more than half as many as its offense puts up on average (496.9).
In their last five games, the Wildcats have led at halftime 31-7, 35-7, 42-0, 14-3 and 34-0.
Yet the Pirates (5-2, 4-1) expect to hang with the Wildcats. Though the Pirates’ defense has ceded more total yards per game this year (357.9) than last (311.2), their passing defense has allowed 9 yards fewer per game this season.
They also are optimistic about getting pressure on Smith in ways other NWC teams haven’t.
“They’re gonna come out and try to put the ball in the air,” said senior defensive end Andrew McCoy, who leads Whitworth with six sacks. “So that puts some pressure on us up front. We gotta get to the quarterback … and make life hard for him.”
Smith has been sacked 11 times this year, including three times in Linfield’s lone loss, 27-19 to 7-1 Redlands (California).
In that game, Redlands built a 17-6 halftime lead and shut down the Wildcats’ running game. Linfield finished with minus-37 yards on 26 carries. Redlands wasn’t particularly dominant on offense, but it held the ball for more than 38 minutes and won the turnover battle by two.
It is as close to a blueprint for stopping this year’s Linfield squad as Whitworth has. The Pirates have the added boost of knowing that they’ve stopped the Wildcats before.
“It was good getting that experience last year in a big game, but this year’s new,” Chelin said. “It’s about us and (staying) focused on what we can do.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.