PENDLETON — The atmosphere at Pendleton’s midweek football practices this season has normally been lively and business-like.
However, this week it has a different feel. There is more focus, more determination, and less procrastination. The Buckaroos know what is at stake this week and know the kind of preparation that needs to happen to be at their best come Friday night when they travel to Central Oregon to take on a tough Bend squad.
“The biggest focus this week is everything counts,” senior quarterback Nick Bower said at practice on Wednesday. “Every play, every quarter, every snap, every throw, literally everything matters, so we’re just trying to make everything magnified and make sure we know how important this game is for us.”
With two weeks left to play, Pendleton (4-3 overall, 3-2 5A Special District 1) has a one-game lead on Summit for the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the district. Because of the Buckaroos loss to the Storm in Week 3, Pendleton needs to win its final two games to guarantee its first playoff berth since 2014. That has been the Buckaroos’ No. 1 goal all season long, but it will not come easy, starting with Bend.
“We haven’t been in a position like this in a couple of years,” Pendleton head coach Erik Davis said. “So to get these kids to realize what they have to do to be a playoff team is to have that playoff mentality.”
The Lava Bears (5-2, 4-1) come into the game ranked No. 14 in the OSAA’s 5A rankings and had a five-game win streak snapped last week with a close 35-32 loss at Hermiston. In that game, Bend erased a 21-2 first half deficit and used a balanced offensive attack and a stout defense capable of forcing turnovers to play its way back into the game.
On offense, Pendleton will be facing a Bend unit that sits in a Cover-3 base and will try to combat it with a strong running game with some vertical passing. Davis said this week that the keys to the offense come down to a fast start and limiting any turnovers. Pendleton didn’t turn the ball over against Hood River, but did not score until late in the second quarter before turning it on in the second half, something they can’t allow on Friday.
“We came out flat a little bit against Hood River early and we don’t have that luxury this week,” Davis said. “We have to get on the board early and often, we can’t afford to wait until the second quarter or late in the game for scoring opportunities ... and we don’t want to give them (Bend) any extra offensive possessions because they’re a big, physical team that can run the clock down.”
And on defense, Pendleton is facing a Bend offense that will try to wear out the opposition with a rushing attack with Haakon Kjellesvik and Marhsall Davis, but also has a threat to throw the ball downfield to some tall receivers. Last week against Hermiston, Bend ran 65 plays on offense to Hermiston’s 49, with 136 yards on 43 rushes and 178 yards on eight pass completions from quarterback Cooper Simmonds.
“I think our linebackers are going to have to play huge Friday, filling in gaps,” Davis said. “They’re (Bend) not a huge outside the tackles run team, they like to keep it inside, so to get Kirk (Liscom) and Aiden (Patterson) going and the outside linebackers have to play more physical than they did against Mountain View a couple weeks ago. Our defense has been improving against the run game, but we have to limit the long drives. We need more three-and-outs and not the 10 minute drives like Mountain View.”
Some good news came to the defense this week, as junior linebacker Willie Camp was medically cleared to play following his emergency appendectomy two weeks ago. Davis said that how much Camp will play has yet to be determined, that it depended on how Camp responded to testing in practice after being sidelined for the amount of time that he was.
“If he’s ready to go, he’ll play because he’s a tough kid,” Davis said. “But We’ll monitor what’s safe, what’s right, and what’s most effective.”
And as if Friday’s game was not already a tough enough environment for Pendleton, the weather forecast as of Wednesday evening calls for temperatures in the low 40s/high 30s by game time with a good chance of precipitation and 10-plus mile-per-hour winds. The two teams played in rough conditions last year in Pendleton, as a days worth of rain turned the Round-Up Arena field into a mudpit for a game that Bend grinded out a 22-7 victory. But the players are not worried too much about it.
“We just have to go down there and make plays,” Bower said. “They’re (Bend) playing on the same field and same conditions as us, so we just have to go out and make plays.”
A win would also go a long way for the Buckaroos program that has yet to beat a true good team this season. In Pendleton’s four wins, the opponents (Putnam, Ridgeview, Redmond, Hood River Valley) have a combined record of just 5-21, while its three losses (La Grande, Summit, Mountain View) are 16-5. Pendleton played tough in those three games, but not tough enough which is something the Buckaroos hope to change on Friday.
“We need to come out faster and stronger,” junior Aiden Patterson said. “Every time we come out to start, our defense takes a series or two to warm up and it allows them to score early so we need to come out a lot faster in this game. Every play counts, we can’t take a play off ... losing isn’t an option. It’s a must-win for us and that’s our goal.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.