SPOKANE, Wash. – On a day when its offense racked up nearly 600 yards, it was the Willamette defense that turned the tide in favor of the visiting Bearcats in a 38-24 victory at Whitworth on Saturday in a meeting of unbeaten Northwest Conference foes.
Willamette (5-0 overall, 1-0 NWC) turned a 17-14 halftime deficit into a 31-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter by limiting the previously efficient Pirate offense to no points and only two first downs over the first 23 minutes of the second half.
Whitworth (5-1, 1-1) had taken its 17-14 lead on a pair of Bryan Peterson touchdowns, one through the air and one rushing touchdown. But the Bearcats outscored the Pirates 24-7 in the second half.
Robert Thullen's 29-yard field goal midway through the first quarter got the Pirates on the board on their first possession.
Willamette answered with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Josh Dean to Jake Knecht. It actually appeared a Whitworth defender had intercepted the pass, but Knecht wrestled the ball away as the two players were falling to the ground.
Whitworth went back up 10-7 on Peterson's 24-yard touchdown pass to Jake DeGooyer in the back of the endzone right before the end of the first quarter. But Willamette answered back when Dean hit Knecht in stride for a 59-yard touchdown pass three minutes into the second period.
Peterson's four-yard touchdown run with 4:20 to play in the first half capped a 72-yard Whitworth drive and gave the Bucs their 17-14 lead at halftime.
The second half opened with Willamette forcing Whitworth to punt after only two first downs on its opening possession. Those would be the only Pirate first downs in the second half until less then seven minutes remained in the game.
Like the defense, the Bearcat offense got rolling. Taylor Wyman's three-yard run capped an 88-yard drive on Willamette's opening possession of the half and gave the Bearcats a lead they would not give away.
The Whitworth defense prevented further damage on the next two Willamette possessions. The Bucs made a terrific goal-line stand after the Bearcats had first and goal at the Pirate three. Then after a short punt, Whitworth forced Willamette into a 33-yard field goal that missed wide right.
But the Bearcats would eventually build a double-digit lead early in the fourth quarter when Dean hit Knecht for a third time, again from 19 yards out, for a 28-17 Willamette lead. The Bearcats added a Kyle Derby field goal from 21 yards on their next possession to extend the advantage to two full touchdowns.
Whitworth's offense finally found its rhythm again late in the fourth quarter and Peterson hit Austin Ehlo for an 11-yard touchdown with 1:47 to play that pulled the Pirates within 31-24.
Willamette easily handled the onsides kick attempt. On third and eight at the Whitworth 42-yard line, Dean found tight end Benny Weischedel over the middle for a pass that was supposed to just get a first down. But the Bearcat receiver broke a tackle and outraced the rest of the Pirate defense to the endzone with 46 seconds to play.
Willamette outgained Whitworth 598-373 and had a 26-21 advantage in first downs.
Peterson completed 24 of 43 passes for 262 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked four times. Jake DeGooyer was his favorite receiver with 10 catches for 104 yards and one touchdown. Devon Lind caught four passes for 43 yards.
Ronnie Thomas ran 22 times for 85 yards. It is the first time this season that he didn't break the 100-yard barrier and the first time he did not run for a touchdown.
Dean completed 23 of 41 passes for 392 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He added 45 yards on 12 carries running the ball for 437 yards of total offense. Knecht finished with six catches for 147 yards and three scores. Weischedel added three receptions for 86 yards and a score.
Dylan Jones had a big day running the ball, carrying 22 times for 131 yards.
Jack Nelson was all over the field defensively for Willamette, finishing with 13 tackles, while Cullen Carroll added 12 stops. Ben Lyons added eight tackles, including two sacks. Tyson Giza had the Bearcats' interception.
Life does not get any easier for the Pirates, who are scheduled to travel to 3rd-ranked Linfield next Saturday.