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Whitworth has more questions than answers heading into Northwest Conference, home opener against Willamette

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 4, 2019, 5:16 p.m.

Whitworth QB Leif Ericksen fires a pass under pressure from Lewis & Clark defensive lineman Andrew Werst, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in the Pine Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth QB Leif Ericksen fires a pass under pressure from Lewis & Clark defensive lineman Andrew Werst, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in the Pine Bowl. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The Whitworth Pirates emerged from their nonconference schedule with a win, a loss and a series of injuries.

While the loss clarified their path to the Division III playoffs – they must now win the Northwest Conference to take its automatic bid to the postseason – the injuries are at least as concerning for the 23rd-ranked Pirates, who open conference play at home against Willamette at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Pine Bowl.

“To be a great program, you’ve got to be able to overcome those things,” Pirates head coach Rod Sandberg said of the injuries. “We’ve had a lot.”

The spate started in training camp, when starting senior running back Tariq Ellis ruptured his Achilles tendon. In a season-opening 50-24 win at La Verne, senior receiver and captain Taylor Hall sustained a lower-body injury from which he hasn’t returned.

And then, in a 37-30 loss at Chapman two weeks ago, the Pirates’ veteran linebacking corps lost two of its starters, juniors Iain Black and Jaylen Gonzales, to upper-body injuries. Black has one of the team’s three sacks, and both have nine tackles, tied for third most on the team.

In their places, seniors Kaipo Barnes and Gunnar Swannack are expected to start alongside outside linebacker Kale Wong, a senior captain.

The Pirates also will be without two players from their rotation at defensive line, senior Tom Wilkie and sophomore Dylan Peterson.

Willamette, a team the Pirates shut out 52-0 on the road a year ago, might seem to be the ideal opponent to play given those injuries, but Sandberg said the Bearcats are improved.

“They’ve won a game, and they have a little momentum,” Sandberg said.

The Bearcats lost their opener 43-33 to La Verne, but returned home and beat Occidental, also of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, 34-31. Willamette went 1-17 overall the past two seasons, prompting the team to hire a new head coach, Isaac Parker.

The Bearcats are led by graduate wide receiver Jordan Jenkins, who has 10 receptions, 172 yards and six touchdowns. Jenkins, listed at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, played basketball for Willamette the last four seasons and was named first-team All-NWC last year, when he averaged 20.0 points per game.

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