It was part of Whitworth’s pregame plan to have freshman quarterback Caleb Christensen take a few snaps at the start of the second quarter Saturday against Lewis & Clark.
It was not expected that Christensen would end up replacing starting senior quarterback Jaedyn Powell for the rest of the Northwest Conference game, connecting on 28 of 42 passes for 407 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-17 win.
Christensen, who led Royal High to three State 1A titles, entered the game after a rocky first quarter for No. 18 Whitworth (4-0, 1-0). Powell had already turned the ball over twice on fumbles in the Pirates’ first two possessions. The Pioneers didn’t fare much better, turning it over on a fumble during their first possession and narrowly escaping a botched snap on a punt in Whitworth territory. The sloppy first quarter ended scoreless.
As Christensen has done previously this season, he started the second quarter to get a few game speed reps while giving Powell a breather. When Christensen stepped in against the Pioneers, he went 8 for 11 on his first drive, marching the Pirates 73 yards upfield for the first score of the game – a 4-yard TD run by sophomore Solomon Hines.
On the next drive, Christensen connected for three consecutive first-down passes. His fourth pass was picked off by Lewis & Clark’s Tanner Ono in the end zone for a touchback. But Christensen had done enough to earn the nod from Pirates coach Rod Sandberg to play the rest of the game.
“He’s young, but I think he’s just getting more and more confidence in the offense,” Sandberg said. “For a freshman, he is extremely poised back there. You can watch that. A couple times he was just waiting and waiting with somebody in his face, but would still make a very accurate throw.”
Pioneers quarterback Cruz Montana found junior receiver Elijah McGee in the end zone with 26 seconds left in the second quarter, but Whitworth responded by quickly moving the ball into field-goal range. Whitworth senior kicker Nate RePue nailed a career-long, 49-yard field goal to end the half, giving the Pirates a 10-7 lead.
Lewis & Clark took back a 14-10 lead on its first possession of the second half, capping a 74-yard drive with a 2-yard TD run by Dyontae Navarrete.
But Christensen’s hot hand continued as he threw for 116 yards in the third quarter, connecting with Hines for an 88-yard touchdown pass, the Pirates’ longest of the season. Hines finished the game with 137 receiving yards, with 89 yards after catch, 79 yards rushing and two TDs.
“(Hines) is a man among boys,” Sandberg said. “He’s a special player to watch. You can see us – we are just trying to find any way we can to get him the ball, because when he has it in his hands he does special things.”
The Pioneers opened the fourth quarter with a 35-yard field goal from junior Alex Koga to briefly cut the deficit to 21-17, but it was their last score. Christensen continued to pick apart the Pioneers’ secondary, throwing for 109 yards in the fourth quarter and hitting senior receiver Ethan Peloquin for a 16-yard touchdown. Peloquin was Christensen’s favorite target of the day, reeling in nine catches for 88 yards.
Whitworth junior receiver Matthew Fiesta sealed the Pirates’ win with a 16-yard TD run off a reverse with about 8 minutes left.