COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – Needing an almost-perfect performance to knock off the third-ranked team on the road in the second round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs, the Whitworth Pirates came up short in a 45-24 loss to Saint John's University at Clemens Stadium.
Whitworth capped the 2018 season with its first loss, ending 10-1. Along the way the Pirates became only the second team in school history to win ten games and also became only the fifth to go unbeaten during the regular season.
The Johnnies (12-0) advance to play second-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor in next week's quarterfinals.
"Saint John's is a great team, well-coached and we couldn't make them make mistakes today," said Whitworth head coach Rod Sandberg.
Leif Ericksen and Garrett McKay did what they could to keep the Pirates in the game, especially in the first half. Ericksen completed 40 of 60 passes (both career-highs) for 311 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. McKay caught 13 of those passes for 93 yards and two scores.
McKay broke Whitworth's record for career receiving yards in the game. The senior WR finishes his Pirate career with 270 receptions for 3,100 yards and holds the school records in both categories.
Trailing 14-3 early in the second quarter, Whitworth went 74 yards to pull within 14-10 on a seven-yard pass from Ericksen to McKay. The Bucs converted four third downs on that drive.
The Johnnies quickly answered, going 81 yards in only 2:49 to score on Jackson Erdmann's 10-yard scoring pass to Jared Streit.
Erdmann, a junior transfer from Penn State, completed 20 of 34 passes for 305 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Streit led the team with two touchdown catches, while Andrew Van Erp caught five passes for 87 yards and a score.
The game's pivotal exchange came late in the second quarter. Whitworth pulled within 21-17 on Ericksen's four-yard touchdown pass to Mason Elms on fourth and one with 1:58 to play in the half, capping a 13-play, 71-yard drive.
Whitworth forced three straight incomplete passes from Erdmann, getting the ball back at its own 43 with 1:38 to play and a chance to grab the lead at halftime. However, a first down play was called back on a holding penalty and the Pirates had to punt. Max Jackson returned the punt 47 yards deep into Whitworth territory and three plays later Erdmann tossed a four-yard TD pass to Will Gillach for a 28-17 lead at the break.
After sustaining three long scoring drives in the first half, Whitworth was unable to retain the offensive momentum after halftime. SJU brought heavier pressure on Ericksen in the second half and sacked Ericksen four times in the third and fourth quarters.
"Our game plan was to use our quick pace to chunk the ball down the field," Ericksen said. "Unfortunately they got a lot more pressure in the second half."
The only scoring of the third quarter was a 22-yard field goal by the Johnnies. Whitworth had two chances to cut into the lead after driving deep into SJU territory. One drive ended with Ericksen's only interception of the game in the SJU endzone and the other ended when Cody McDonad's 43-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright.
SJU put the game away in the fourth quarter with two long touchdown drives of its own. Erdmann's fifth touchdown pass of the game gave the Johnnies a 45-17 lead.
McKay caught his second touchdown of the game with 24 seconds to play.
"We didn't come here for a moral victory today," said a disappointed McKay following the game. "I know the guys in the locker room will let this sink in and build on this feeling."
Saint Johns outgained Whitworth 488-368, including a 156-57 edge on the ground. After leading NCAA Division III in tackles for loss this season, Whitworth got to Erdmann only one time in the game and finished with only two tackles for loss.
Brett Moser had nine catches for 90 yards for the Pirates. Elms finished with 57 yards rushing on seven carries. Zach Hillman had a career-high 15 tackles for the Whitworth defense. Kale Wong added 11 stops and broke up two passes. Andrew McCoy and Chad Wilburg shared the Bucs' only sack.
"These guys invested a lot, committed a lot and if they weren't hurting right now there'd be something wrong," Sandberg said. "But I love these guys and I am proud of what these guys accomplished this year."