Any way you slice it, this one hurts.
It hurts senior receiver Kellen Westering, who has endured injury-plagued stretches to return healthy for a final crack at the postseason.
It hurts sophomore quarterback Cole Chandler, who was trying to make a play at the end but fell short.
And an improbable 45-41 loss to Whitworth on Saturday certainly hurts Pacific Lutheran University’s bid to reach the NCAA Division III playoffs.
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Down 17 points, the Pirates scored three touchdowns in the final 9 1/2 minutes at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup to cap their largest fourth-quarter comeback in school history.
The last two scores were Duke DeGaetano rushing touchdowns, including the winning 10-yard scamper with 41 seconds remaining.
“We showed a lot of heart,” DeGaetano said. “It is the one thing our team doesn’t lack. We play for the people around us, and we never stop believing.”
The game certainly had distinct ebbs and flows for the Lutes (3-2, 2-1 Northwest Conference), who scored on their first four drives for a 28-21 lead early in the second quarter.
And both quarterbacks — senior Jon Schaub and Chandler — led two scoring series apiece.
But the Pirates (5-1, 3-0) stayed around, and were threatening to cut into a 35-24 deficit early in the fourth quarter when they drove to the Lutes 13.
On first down, quarterback Ian Kolste tried going quickly to All-American tight end Nick Kiourkas in the right flat on a pass.
Lutes safety Carson Ketter read it perfectly, undercut the route, grabbed an interception and outraced Kolste to the end zone on a 92-yard return.
It was Kolste’s first interception in 153 consecutive passing attempts. The touchdown return gave PLU a 41-24 lead with 11:45 to go.
But the Whitworth offense had the last laugh.
Kolste immediately led the Pirates on a 55-yard scoring drive in eight plays, finishing it off with his 5-yard touchdown run to cut it to 41-31.
The Lutes went three-and-out on their next series, and Whitworth went right back down the field, going 82 yards on 11 plays. DeGaetano rumbled in from 2 yards out for a touchdown, trimming PLU’s lead to 41-38 with 4:56 to go.
At that point, the PLU offense knew it needed to make a couple of first downs to put the Pirates away.
“Their offense is so good, we knew as an offense it was going to be up to us,” Westering said.
The Lutes got one first down. But after a penalty, they faced a third-and-8 from their own 38-yard line.
Chandler had Westering along the left sideline. He grabbed the pass, but was ruled out of bounds. PLU had to punt.
“Of course, we wanted just one more chance,” DeGaetano said.
And it was the chance they took full advantage of.
DeGaetano was the workhorse, busting up the middle on runs of 16, 7, 10, and 9 yards as the Pirates reached the PLU 10.
On the decisive play, DeGaetano went left and cut up the seam for a touchdown run with 41 seconds remaining to give Whitworth its first lead, 45-41.
Chandler hit Westering on passes of 16, 21 and 19 yards to put PLU at the Pirates 23 with two seconds left.
On the final play, Chandler was flushed from the pocket. He took off and was tackled after an 8-yard gain. The game was over.
If the Lutes have any chance to get into the postseason, they will need to run the table. One of those games is against nationally ranked and NWC nemesis Linfield.
“(Former quarterback) Dalton Richey told me after the loss to Pacific (in 2013) during his senior year when we knew we were done,” Westering said. “He said, ‘I know we can beat Linfield.’
“That is what we are going to try and do. You never know.
“Today we gave it our best shot. The loss sucks.”