Pendleton needs wins with season winding down
By Eric Singer
PENDLETON — With just three weeks remaining in the regular season, there is no more room for error for the Pendleton Buckaroos.
Pendleton (3-3 overall, 2-2 5A Special District 1) is clinging to the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the district with a one-game lead on Hood River Valley, Summit and Redmond with three games left to play. That means Pendleton needs to win out to guarantee its first postseason berth since 2014, and it starts on Friday night in Hood River against a slumping Eagles team.
“I made it real clear this week to the kids that it’s a must-win each week if we want to continue our season,” Pendleton coach Erik Davis said at practice on Tuesday. “The biggest thing is the kids have to understand every play is important and we have to be focused on every play. The one thing about this team is they do want to win and they do want to make the playoffs, they have expectations that they will go to the playoffs and I have no doubt we’ll be ready to go this Friday.”
Hood River (2-3, 1-3) is an improved squad over the winless team from a year ago that Pendleton beat 33-23 at the Round-Up, but the Eagles are in a bit of a slump. After winning its first two games in blowout fashion over St. Helens and Ridgeview, the Eagles have lost three straight, most recently 30-20 on the road at Redmond last week.
But the Eagles do bring a different challenge to a Buckaroos defense that has faced a string of run-heavy teams recently. The Eagles have a balanced run-pass offense headlined by junior quarterback Caden Leiblein and senior running back Michael Jones, which has sparked some personnel changes with the Buckaroos defense.
Seniors Shaw Jerome and Cam Sandford will see more time at defensive back to help defend the pass. The two players rarely, if ever, saw time on defense in recent games in favor of extra run-stuffing bodies up front. The balanced threat also prompted Pendleton to run defensive 7-on-7 drills in practice for the first time in a few weeks as well.
“I feel really good where we are in the run defense, but we just have to knock the rust off the defensive secondary,” Davis said. “We have to take care of their tailback because he (Jones) is a good one and their quarterback (Leiblein) is pretty savvy in the pocket. He’s not going to blow your doors off running a la an Andrew Peasley (from La Grande), but he’s elusive. So we have to make sure we contain him with our ends and go let our athletes be athletes in the secondary.”
Offensively for Pendleton, the Buckaroos have spent the week of practice trying to get their timing back and work into the rhythm that they lost against Mountain View last week. After putting together an 80-yard scoring drive to open the game, Pendleton managed just 115 yards the rest of the way, including quarterback Nick Bower completing just 5-of-17 passes after that drive.
The unit was dealt a blow this week, though, as starting running back Shawn Yeager was diagnosed with a broken fibula in his right leg that required season-ending surgery. Yeager, who totaled 334 rushing yards with four touchdowns in six games, suffered the injury after while getting tackled on a run in the second half.
In Yeager’s place Aiden Patterson and Kirk Liscom will get some carries, as will Alex Rendon, who Davis is excited about.
“Alex is a tremendous athlete, maybe the best athlete on our team. He’s a tremendous wrestler and has great body awareness and really quick feet,” Davis said. “He’s a dynamic back so I’m excited to see him get some carries at the varsity level. The good thing about the position is we’re fairly deep so it’s just kind of a next-man-up mentality.”
But even with the change at running back, Davis is confident that the Buckaroos offense will be back and roaring on Friday against the Eagles.
“(Bower) has to get in a rhythm early and I have to get in a rhythm with Nick,” he said. “Not a lot of people think about that but it’s important for the coordinator and the QB to be on the same page about the thought process, where the motions are coming from, why you’re calling certain plays. If we can get on that early and get Nick some completions early and often, we can go for a big night.”
Contact Eric at email@example.com or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.