by Sena Hughes
Anyone who says NCAA Division III football can’t be exciting certainly wasn’t at the Whitworth Pine Bowl last Saturday. The Bucs continued their winning streak and advanced to 4-0, pulling out a thriller against the Panthers of Chapman University, 17-14.
“4-0 feels really good,” senior running back and team captain Ronnie Thomas said. “I’m really proud of all my teammates. I feel like it’s going to be a good year. It’s a good year for us and a good year for the community. It’s going to be a fun one for sure.”
Whitworth head coach John Tully, now in his 18th season with the Pirates, was pleased with his team’s performance.
“It was a great team win,” Tully said. “Offense, defense and special teams all played really, really well together.”
The Bucs finally took the field at the Pine Bowl for the first time this season, after accumulating more than 6200 miles of travel for road games over the last three weeks. The giant Whitworth helmet in the north end zone was inflated once more and funneled the Pirates onto the field.
“I think we’d all say we really enjoyed everyone who came out and supported,” sophomore defensive back Paul Miller said. “The home atmosphere at the Pine Bowl is awesome.”
Chapman found open field behind the Pirates secondary early in the first quarter to put the first seven points on the board.
“We came out pretty flat in the first half, honestly,” Thomas said. “Definitely not the best first half of football we’ve played.”
But Whitworth answered quickly. Miller ran back the Chapman kickoff following the touchdown to the Panther 44-yard line, then a Chapman personal foul moved the chains down the field further to give the Bucs prime field position. Four plays later, sophomore quarterback Bryan Peterson connected in the end zone with junior wide receiver Connor Williams to tie up the game halfway through the first quarter.
The Panthers found the end zone for the second and final time of the afternoon with two minutes left in the first half. The Bucs tried to answer, but were forced to go three and out and went into halftime trailing 14-7.
In the first play out of the locker room, Thomas exploded off a hand off from Peterson and ran 69 yards for a Whitworth touchdown.
“I was honestly really frustrated in the first half. I felt like we were sort of stalemated on the line,” Thomas said. “I had a pep talk in the locker room with the offensive line at halftime and told them I trust them and I believe in them and they’re my brothers. Then first play out, I found a little running room and got the touchdown and obviously that felt good. It’s all about trust, I think.”
Thomas led the Bucs in rushing on the day with 134 yards and the touchdown.
In the ensuing kick off following the Thomas touchdown, junior defensive back Tevin Tyus was immediately carted off the field by an ambulance for due to an apparent broken leg. The Bucs’ defense in particular has taken a beating in these first several weeks, with multiple injured players.
“It’s tough to see guys go down,” Peterson said. “But other guys are stepping up for us great.”
Peterson himself had an injury scare later in the third quarter when he said his left knee twisted. Trainers rushed the field, but Peterson was able to walk off on his own power and it was determined he was ok. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael McCune came in for a few snaps for the Bucs.
A tie game going into a fourth quarter, Peterson led the Bucs down the field early in the period, setting up a perfect 23-yard field goal for freshman kicker Robert Thullen. Whitworth defense took control from there.
“[It] was a good team effort,” Miller said, who led the Pirates on the day with ten solo tackles. “Offense stepped up big. We kept Chapman’s offense in check. It just is all about offense having defense’s back and defense having offense’s back.”
Junior defensive back Casey Monohan pulled in an interception in the Chapman end zone with just over four minutes remaining, which turned out to be a game-saving play for Whitworth. The Pirate offense struggled and went three and out, once again handing over the game to the defense. After Whitworth gave up a big third and long with just over a minute left in the game, Chapman went no huddle and continued to work their way up the field. A Whitworth penalty advanced the Panthers half the distance to the goal and put them on the Bucs’ 12-yard line with less than a minute remaining. After two incomplete passes to the end zone, Chapman ran the ball, but Whitworth was there for the stop.
With just two ticks remaining on the clock, Chapman brought out the field goal unit to send the game into overtime. Though the kick was good, a crucial Panther holding penalty was called, which moved Chapman back 10 yards and forced them to attempt the field goal once again. Whitworth called a timeout with no time left in regulation to ice the Chapman kicker. The attempted 33-yard kick as time expired was wide left and crimson and black stormed the field.
“I’m very pleased for our players,” Tully said. “They’ve put in a lot of time. If they give great effort that’s all we can ask.”
The Pirates take their 4-0 non-conference record into Northwest Conference play next weekend at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.
Contact Sena Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org