Trailing 14-0 in the third quarter, Menlo went back to the well and found the same late-game inspiration which enabled the Oaks to go 3-1 in September and move into the NAIA Football Coaches' Top 25. Quarterback Cruz Castillo connected for a 38-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Michael Alexander before tossing a seven-yard touchdown pass to fellow sophomore Kenny Cavness.
Now down only 14-7 with three minutes left in the quarter, the Oaks defense hung tough to force a punt despite allowing the Pirates a big chunk of yards on a 38-yard pass from Andrew DeFelice to Jake DeGooyer. Whitworth was eventually forced to punt and pinned Menlo down at its own three yard live to start the ensuing drive.
Menlo's fourth-quarter magic looked like it was beginning to take effect when Castillo hit Cavness for 25 yards on second down, but Castillo's next pass proved to be his biggest of the day - for the wrong reason. Whitworth's Paul Werhane stepped in front of Castillo's next attempt for an interception he returned 36 yards for a backbreaking score which put the Pirates in front 20-7 with 13 minutes, 26 seconds remaining.
Castillo found enough holes in the Whitworth defense on the Oaks next drive, moving the ball to the Pirates 19 with short passes and a seven-yard run. Menlo stalled there, turning the ball over on downs when Payton Bell was tackled in the backfield on a fourth-and-two run.
Entering Saturday's game, Castillo had thrown just seven interceptions in 271 career pass attempts. Blustery weather coupled with Whitworth's opportunistic defense made the game a nightmare for the sophomore quarterback, though he did enough to keep the Oaks in the game throughout. Castillo finished 13-for-28 for 138 yards passing and five interceptions. He also ran the ball three times for 24 yards.
Whitworth had a chance to take a comfortable lead into halftime, but Drew Goranson missed three short field goals in the first half. Menlo couldn't take advantage of the good fortune, though. The Oaks moved the ball to the Whitworth 45 on its first possession, but didn't advance past their own 47 until starting their lone scoring drive at the Pirates 41.
Menlo played well enough defensively to keep things interesting. The Oaks allowed 375 total yards - including 224 on the ground - but intercepted three passes while allowing only 13 points. R.J. Rivera led Menlo with 10 tackles while Derek Bosia totaled eight. Beau Bussani and Chris Tosello tallied seven tackles apiece. Freshman James Yoder intercepted two passes while Bussani picked off another.
Bell paced the Oaks offense with 55 yards on 17 carries and five receptions for 39 yards. Cavness caught four balls for 43 yards. Menlo managed 225 total yards.
While the Oaks would have enjoyed leaving their mark on the field, history was made in one way at Menlo College. Saturday's game was the first varsity college football game with an officiating crew featuring two women. Cat Conti of Camarillo, Calif., and Mary Podesta of San Mateo were part of the impressive crew that worked the Menlo-Whitworth contest.
Menlo is now 3-2 on the season and returns to action next Saturday at Lewis & Clark for a 12 p.m. kickoff. Whitworth is also 3-2.