Contact: Mark Albanese, Director of Sports Communication
TACOMA, Wash. - The Pacific Lutheran University football team lifts the curtain on the 2017 season on Saturday night, clashing with California Lutheran University in a non-conference tilt at Rolland Stadium.
The Lutes (5-4, 4-3 Northwest Conference in 2016) head into the opener with high expectations after returning 56 players from last year's squad. PLU's depth chart is littered with veteran student-athletes, with upperclassmen starters in 19 of the 22 positions on offense and defense.
"Needless to say we're real excited. It's kind of unique in that this time of the year we're uncommonly healthy. We've got through preseason camp, our intrasquad game, and this week of practice without anybody being seriously hurt so we're going to take everyone down to California and we'll start everyone that we would have started," said Head Coach Scott Westering.
Offensively, Cole Chandler will be the starter under center after emerging from a tight quarterback competition during camp. Chandler played in eight games for the Lutes last season, throwing two touchdowns and running for four more while completing 60.7 percent of his passes. Chandler was deadly with his feet, finishing third on the team in rushing with 287 yards.
"All three returning junior quarterbacks, Cole Chandler, Walker LaVoy, and Nolan Hoover, worked so hard this summer. All of them really improved. We came out of last year rotating John Schaub '17 and Chandler because the skill sets were quite different between the two quarterbacks. Now the three guys we have are real similar. I told them in the spring someone is going to be our guy. We're not going to rotate like we did last year with Jon being a pocket guy and Cole being a scrambler."
"I told each of them I want you to be our starting quarterback. All three worked so hard and its been the hardest decision we've mae in a long time. We've settled on Cole but obviously Walker is ready to go next snap if needed and he's proven that the last two seasons."
Protecting Chandler will be an offensive line that returns two All-Northwest Conference performers in Alex Fairhurst (Second Team selection) and Austin Striplin (Honorable Mention), who for 2017 moved from center to left guard.
Marc Gallant headlines a talented core of running backs, returning for his senior season after galloping for 439 yards in 2016. When the ball is in the air, tight end DJ Winter will be a big target for Chandler after racking up 150 yards and three touchdowns a season ago.
"We have a stable of running backs and it's going to be a running back by committee this year. We have three or four really good kids there and at wide receiver Jacob King has kind of risen up and grown and become a leader of the group. We're very pleased where we are with our combination passing game."
Not to be overlooked is the Lute defense which looks to be a hallmark of the 2017 team. The defensive unit boasts four returning All-NWC selections including linebackers Isaiah Watkins (Second Team) and Matt Anthony (Honorable Mention) along with defensive backs Travis McMillion (First Team) and Carson Ketter (Honorable Mention). McMillion racked up 88 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and four interceptions last season and along with Casey Ruether will serve as team captains for the defense.
"Travis is very great at reading things and a great leader. He and Casey have done a great job leading the defense and I'm excited to watch our defense play."
Joining the returning Lutes is 35 newcomers, including a few that on paper look to be immediate contributors.
"Last time we played at Cal Lu they beat us up at the line in the second half. I think we're in a different place now. We now have a physcial presence up front (in first-year nose tackle Taylor Rupe) which really helps how we run this defense and I expect the defense to set the tone to start the year."
Special teams, a strong point a season ago, returns Honorable Mention All-NWC kicker Dallan Rodriguez who drilled nine field goals along with punter Anthony Louthan who helped win the field position battle all season after pinning opponents inside the 20 on 14 of his 38 punts.
"It's very exciting to see both our veterans and newcomers. The combination of a very good recruiting class, guys that have come in and shown they can play at the collegiate level. You mix in the veterans and the continuity that comes with practicing football with the same guys day after day, practice after practice, and that's priceless. Within the lines especially. With them together were in a unique place that we haven't been in a long time."
Three of PLU's four setbacks a season ago were by a touchdown or less, a fact not lost on the 2017 squad.
"We have a lot of pieces and we've talked since last season about how close we were last season. It's a great conference and it's going to be a great challenge but i think we're in a good place. We have nine games to play. It's in our culture that we have an opportunity to go into the arena and play. It doesn't matter who we play and what their record is. That all comes back to the mindset we teach our players. We have 19 seniors and this group is really committed to what we want to do and know how close we were last season. You put all that together and we're very excited."
Sept. 9: PLU vs. California Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, California (7 PM)
Series History: The Lutes and Kingsmen have met 22 times on the gridiron with PLU enjoying a 12-10 edge in the all-time series, including winning three of the last four. The Lutes prevailed 17-14 last season at Sparks Stadium with Dallan Rodriguez booting a game-winning 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
About the Kingsmen: Saturday also serves as California Lutheran's season opener as the Kingsmen look to improve upon last season's 4-5 record that included a 4-3 mark in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play. CLU returns 48 student-athletes from a season ago while bringing in 53 newcomers.
Among the returners is quarterback Adam Friederichsen who threw for 2,145 yards and 20 touchdowns a season ago. His most popular target, First Team All-SCIAC pick Aaron Lacombe returns after scoring 11 touchdowns and racking up 886 receiving yards. Headlining the defense is Second Team All SCIAC linebacker Acquarey Eddington who finished with 15.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season.