After nearly a century of playing football, the Hermiston Bulldogs will compete in their final game as a member of the OSAA with a state championship up for grabs.
Hermiston takes on Churchill for the Class 5A championship at 6 p.m. Saturday in Hillsboro, as the Bulldogs (10-2) aim to end their self-proclaimed ‘OSAA Farewell Tour’ in the best way possible with the schools’ second-ever state championship. However, it will not be easy against the undefeated Lancers (12-0), who are fresh off a win over the No. 1 seed Mountain View last week.
Here are three keys to a Hermiston win:
RUN EARLY AND OFTEN
After a slow start, Hermiston’s offense found its identity as a run-first team and rolled to nine straight wins overall and three dominant wins in the 5A playoffs.
Hermiston has pounded the ball on the ground with running backs Jonathan Hinkle and Peter Earl and quarterback Andrew James for more than 300 combined yards in each of the three playoff wins.
Hinkle leads all of Class 5A in the postseason with 504 rushing yards on 49 carries — a whopping 10.3 yards per carry average — with five touchdowns, while James has 217 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries.
A key reason for this success has been the play of Hermiston’s offensive line. The five-man unit of AJ Fernandez, Beau Blake, Jacob Liebe, Chase Bradshaw and Taylor Arnold have pushed around opposing defensive fronts to pave the way for the runners. They will be facing a tough Churchill front, but one that is vulnerable to a good rushing attack. Last week against Mountain View, the Lancers gave up 267 yards on 51 rush attempts to the Cougars.
Getting the run game going is crucial for the Bulldogs because it opens the field up for the vertical passing game for players like Dayshawn Neal, Joe Gutierrez and Jordan Ramirez to find space to make big plays. It will also help the Bulldogs continuously move the chains on offensive drives and eat up time on the game clock, keeping Churchill’s electric offense off the field.
START FAST, FINISH FAST
As it was mentioned last week after the 35-27 beating it gave Wilsonville, Hermiston has had the ability in each of the last two weeks to come out and hit their opponent in the mouth before they even knew what happened.
Against South Albany, Hermiston took a fast 21-0 lead, fought off a Rebels’ comeback, and then cruised to a win. Then against Wilsonville in the semifinals, Hermiston again stunned the opponent with a quick 22-0 lead midway through the second quarter before Wilsonville could find a groove. The Bulldogs again fought off a run by the Wildcats and earned the win.
The Bulldogs need to have that same game plan and try to get the Lancers out of sorts on the field, making them play from behind rather than having to chase them down.
Head coach David Faaeteete said Thursday that the you will find out in the first four to five snaps how this game will go — and he, of course, is hoping it goes in the Bulldogs favor as it has been lately.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
The Hermiston defense has been a turnover machine in the postseason, with 10 forced in its three games, including six alone in the quarterfinal win over South Albany. And on the other side of the ball, Hermiston’s offense as just two turnovers, both of which were lost fumbles.
While the defensive turnover total is something to marvel at, it’s also been necessary for the Bulldogs’ unit to stay afloat.
Opposing teams have torched Hermiston in the passing game for a combined 884 yards while running for another 421, and without the help of turnovers the Bulldogs would likely be at home focusing on basketball and wrestling by now.
It will be necessary again for the defense to play aggressively in that aspect as the Churchill offense brings plenty of firepower to the table.
Quarterback Jack Blackburn is second in the 5A with 707 pass yards in the playoffs with eight touchdowns and four interceptions and a full stable of talented receivers. Dalton McDaniel is a 1,000-yard rusher on the season with a talented No. 2 in Tyson Bennion.
Limiting the amount of long drives and scoring chances will be key for the Bulldogs.
And on offense, Hermiston needs to keep playing the way it has been for the month of November. Hinkle, Earl and James do a good job of holding the ball tight when running through defenders, and the run game has opened up the field and reduced the amount of dangerous throws into traffic for James that could lead to turnovers and extra possessions for the opposition.
The fumbles that have recently orrcued have been from extra efforts for a few more yards and while that is commendable, the Bulldogs need to play smart on defense.
Churchill’s upset over the top seeded team was due in part to two mishaps Mountain View had in the red zone, and that’s something Hermiston cannot afford to let happen Saturday.
The winner will come down to not only who can have the better start, but who can play mistake free for 48 minutes.
Contact Eric at email@example.com or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.