SPOKANE, Wash. – Whitworth University clinched a share of its first Northwest Conference football title, and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs, with a 38-28 win over visiting Lewis & Clark College on Saturday in the Pine Bowl.
The Pirates (8-0 overall, 6-0 NWC) can claim an outright title and earn the fifth unbeaten regular season in school history if they can win at Willamette University (1-7) next weekend. Kickoff is at 1:00 in Salem, Oregon.
The Pioneers (2-6, 1-5) made things tough on the Bucs early, jumping to a 14-3 lead in the second quarter, the largest deficit Whitworth has faced this season.
The Pirates survived a season-high three interceptions.
L&C went up 7-0 in the first quarter when Mike Machado hit Dejou Williams on a short slant pass and Williams outraced the Whitworth secondary for a 60-yard touchdown completion. Meanwhile the Pioneer defense limited the Pirates to only 20 yards of offense in the first period.
Whitworth got on the board early in the second period when Kale Wong intercepted Machado at the Lewis & Clark 32 yard line. The short field only turned into a field goal when Cody McDonald converted from 35 yards.
Michael Abraham set up L&C for its second touchdown when he broke free for a 52-yard run to the Whitworth four-yard line. The Pirate defense made a stand, but on 4th-and-1 Abraham powered in for the 14-3 lead with only 4:53 left in the first half.
At that point the Whitworth offense finally came alive. The Pirates went 64 yards in six plays, scoring on Leif Ericksen's 12-yard pass to Taylor Hall, cutting the margin to 14-10 with 2:25 to go.
After a quick three-and-out, Whitworth took over on its own 35 with 1:25 to play. The Bucs effectively used time outs and successfully converted a 4th-and-3 to go the distance for a touchdown. Ericksen passed ten yards to Bryce Powers for the score with 19 seconds to go, giving Whitworth a 17-14 lead at halftime.
L&C outgained Whitworth 202-192 in the first half as Abraham ran for 118 yards on 19 carries before halftime.
The Pirates took the opening possession of the second half to the Linfield 11-yard line looking to extend their lead. However, Anakin Mares intercepted Ericksen at the L&C goal line and returned the ball to the 22 to turn back the threat.
After a punt, James Tostado intercepted Ericksen at Whitworth's 40-yard line and returned to the Pirates' five. Abraham scored two plays later to give L&C its final lead at 21-17.
The Pirates did not panic with the title on the line. Whitworth scored the next 21 points to take control of the game. After Abraham gave the Pioneers their final lead, Ericksen responded with a 12-play, 65-yard drive that included two third down conversion passes. Ericksen scored on a ten-yard keeper to give Whitworth a 24-21 lead late in the third quarter.
Three plays later Tom Wilkie forced Machado to fumble and Andrew McCoy recovered for the Pirates at the L&C 23-yard line. This time Whitworth made the Pioneers pay for a short-yardage turnover as Tariq Ellis ran for a 23-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, giving Whitworth a 31-21 lead with 34 seconds left in the third quarter.
Whitworth scored its final touchdown when Ericksen found Garrett McKay for a 30-yard touchdown up the sideline early in the fourth quarter. When McDonald converted the extra point Whitworth had opened a 38-21 lead with just under 11 minutes to play in the game.
L&C scored its final touchdown on Machado's five-yard pass to Kevin Johnson, but only 51 seconds remained in the game. The Pirates recovered the onsides kick attempt.
Whitworth limited the Pioneers to 118 yards after halftime and outgained L&C 411-320 in the game. The Pirates finished with a 23-11 advantage in first downs.
Ericksen completed 28 of 47 passes for 302 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. McKay caught 12 passes for 160 yards and one score. Isain Wong-Lonzanida added five catches for 42 yards. Ellie and Mason Elms combined to rush for 106 yards on 30 carries. Whitworth was held to a season-low 109 rushing yards.
Abraham had only 18 rushing yards after halftime and finished with 136 yards on 32 attempts. Machado completed 15 of 23 passes for 192 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Williams caught seven passes for 154 yards.
Wong finished with 11 tackles and the interception to lead the Pirate defense. Ian Black and Jaylen Gonzales added ten stops each.
The Pirates will return to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since they were an at-large participant in 2015. Whitworth will participate in the NCAA playoffs for the fourth time in school history.