PENDLETON — Friday’s game between the Pendleton Buckaroos and the Hermiston Bulldogs will pit together two teams that are playing their best football of the season.
Hermiston comes in riding a five-game winning streak behind a high-powered offense and solid defense. Pendleton is fresh off its best win of the season, 39-20 on the road against Bend, and has won four of its last five games overall. The Bulldogs edged out the Buckaroos 13-12 in Hermiston last season, and the Buckaroos are determined to come out on top this time.
“Everybody here knows its a big game and everybody here wants to win,” Pendleton senior safety Brendan Bedolla said. “We want to prove that we’re one of the best teams in (Class) 5A and that we can compete.”
Here is a look at what to expect from both sides on Friday night at the Round-Up Arena:
ON BUCKAROOS SIDELINE: After a slip up three weeks ago against Mountain View, Pendleton rolls into Hermiston week with both its offense and defense firing on all cylinders. Pendleton held a talented Bend offense to just 296 yards of total offense and put up 420 yards themselves, on the heels of a dominant win at Hood River.
But the Buckaroos know they have a different beast with Hermiston this week, especially on offense. The Bulldogs’ offense runs through quarterback Andrew James, running back Jonathan Hinkle, and wide receiver Dayshawn Neal, who has caught 51 percent of Hermiston’s completed passes this season.
“I think every coach I’ve talked to that played Hermiston has high praises of Neal and his ability to be worth a couple touchdowns,” Pendleton coach Erik Davis said at practice on Wednesday. “The biggest thing that we’ve talked about as a program is what got us here and made us a solid defense is hopefully going to win us that football game, not changing what we’ve done. Do we see him (Neal) being a downfield threat? You bet. But at the same time we have some pretty tremendous athletes in our secondary matching up and our front 7 has been pretty good at run stopping so hopefully with good scheme and athleticism we can contain the run game too.”
It will be interesting to keep an eye on how Pendleton’s defense tries to contain James’ dual-threat abilities as well. The last time Pendleton played a true dual-threat QB was Week 1 against La Grande’s Andrew Peasley, who ran around and threw through Pendleton’s defense. But Davis is confident in his defense’s improvement from Week 1 to attack James better than it did Peasley.
One boost will be the full return of junior outside linebacker Willie Camp, who is a full-go this week after an emergency appendectomy more than three weeks ago. Camp played sparingly last week against Bend, but will give the Buckaroos a boost in the run defense.
And offensively, Pendleton is facing a Hermiston defense that thrives on causing turnovers, but is susceptible to giving up the big plays. Davis says the key will be for the Buckaroos’ offense to run through quarterback Nick Bower and to limit turnovers.
“Nick’s matured as a QB over the last few weeks mainly in taking care of the football and not trying to do too much with it and not turning the ball over,” Davis said. “I truly think this game could come down to turnover ratio, if we give them more chances to be on offense, then we could be in for a long night but if we create some turnovers we’re in a better position to be successful. But Nick has to be good, has to be on, our offensive line has to keep him clean.”
ON BULLDOGS SIDELINE: Since Hermiston met its own demise against Mountain View in Week 3, the Bulldogs have been playing lights out on offense. Their winning streak is thanks to a balanced attack led by James and reliable targets in the backfield like Hinkle and fellow senior Peter Earl, and of course Neal — who is on the verge of eclipsing 800 receiving years on the season.
The depth of the senior class is undeniable. Behind Neal, senior Tyler Rohrman has racked up 218 yards and two touchdowns on just eight catches and the Hinkle-Earl duo is just as big of a threat on defense. Also on defense, AJ Tuia and Joey Gutierrez pack a punch and have combined for 71 total tackles and Tuia lead the team with three sacks.
Hermiston has caused problems for opposing offenses all season, which is most recently highlighted by a 68-yard pick-six by Gutierrez in the Oct. 13 showdown with Bend. But with the big plays also comes some big mishaps.
When the Bulldogs enter Round-Up Stadium, they will need to have their cleanest offense performance to date.
Throughout the past eight weeks, Hermiston has fumbled the ball 12 times — only able to recover four of the 12 — and James’ interception tally rose to five after a fluky play two weeks ago against Bend where a Lava Bear broke through the offensive line and tipped and caught James’ pass. Neal, who is James’ favorite target, accounts for almost half of the fumbles (5). Some of those have been due to an extra effort on the part of Neal. One instance he had gotten the first down, and wanted to add a few more yards but instead lost control of the ball and gave up possession all together.
It will be a battle against Pendleton, and Hermiston needs to be in it for the long haul by not only playing hard, but also playing smart.
The defense will also need to be mistake free and put the pressure on Bower, who isn’t afraid to get his feet dirty.
Stopping the run has been on Hermiston’s to-do list all season. Twice this year, the Bulldogs have given up 300 or more rushing yards and while Pendleton might not be known for their run the defensive line better be ready if and when the secondary diminishes Bower’s options.