As dusk settled in behind the Whitworth Fieldhouse on Wednesday evening, the Whitworth football team hooted and shouted at its field-goal unit, attempting to mimic the hostile atmosphere that would come during a winning attempt.
Noah Alejado split the uprights with the short field goal, and the Pirates celebrated at the end of practice, one that came four days after their special teams units came up huge in a 19-14 victory over George Fox.
“We talked in training camp about (how) there will be one or two games this year that special teams will win, and we’ve already had one. That was Saturday,” head coach Rod Sandberg said of a game in which his Pirates returned a punt to set up a score, and blocked and scored on a punt later. “They were monumental in a tight game. … We have a lot of weapons in that area.”
Having defeated three of the bottom four teams in the standings, the Pirates (4-1, 3-0 Northwest Conference) will play at 1 p.m. Saturday at Puget Sound. The Loggers (4-2, 2-1) are a game behind Whitworth, which is tied with Linfield atop the NWC with five games to play.
Last October in Tacoma, Whitworth beat UPS 47-13 behind a 276-yard rushing attack and a defensive effort that included six sacks and three interceptions.
The Pirates’ defense leads the NWC in interceptions (12) and sacks (17), and it has done so despite numerous injuries. Their defensive line depth has been tested as various players have missed time. Junior starting linebackers Jaylen Gonzales and Iain Black, who have played three and two games, respectively, remain out.
The Pirates will try to again generate the kind of pressure they did last year against the Loggers. Sandberg said they will play more nickel and dime packages to better match up against their pass-heavy offense.
After Linfield, Puget Sound ranks second in the conference with 318.5 passing yards per game, about 35 more per game than Whitworth. The Pirates allowed 473 passing yards two weeks ago in a 68-30 win over Lewis & Clark, but they gave up only 176 against George Fox.
As for Whitworth’s offense, Sandberg wasn’t sure who would quarterback it Saturday. Senior Leif Ericksen, who left last week’s game late in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, is still listed atop the depth chart and Sandberg said he hopes he will play against the Loggers.
But if not, Sandberg is confident in junior Connor Johnson. Johnson has played in all five games this year, completing 17 of 28 attempts for four touchdowns while also rushing for 150 yards and four more scores.
“We’ve had all week to get Connor ready and we’ll be confident in either one,” Sandberg said. “Connor’s had a great season and played a lot so far this year, and we have a lot of confidence in him.”
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