PENDLETON — Pendleton head coach Erik Davis knew his defensive front seven had the potential for a special season in 2018, as all four starting linebackers and four defensive linemen returned to the unit.
Mixed with some perfect playcalling from defensive coordinator Fred Phillips on Thursday night in the season opener at home against La Grande, the front seven showed Davis — and the Pendleton fans — just how special they could be.
The group blitzed through and overpowered La Grande’s offensive line from start to finish and made life tough for Tigers quarterback Parker Robinson, as the group sacked Robinson 11 times, recorded a safety and held La Grande to minus-96 rushing yards to lead the Buckaroos to a 38-12 victory over the Tigers at Pendleton High School.
“You saw our defense just fly,” Davis said. “They’re fast, they’re tenacious we knew that going in that they were a special group. Coach Phillips talked throughout the week about bringing that pressure, because we’ve always been that bend-don’t-break defense. But with these kids and how fast they are and how hard they work, we knew putting pressure on a team like La Grande, that’s young up front, was going to create a real mismatch there and I think our kids just really bought into being that in-your-face defense. I’m proud of the group.”
The Buckaroos’ offense was nearly as dominant. Led by an experienced offensive line, the Bucks (1-0) plowed its way to 446 total yards, 259 of which came on the ground. Senior quarterback Trent Sorey — who was making his first career varsity start — had a team-high 13 rushes for 102 yards and a touchdown, and could have had 73 more and another touchdown until a penalty wiped out the play. Sorey had a rough start in the passing game but found a rhythm in the second half, ending the game 10 of 21 for 130 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“I thought he played great,” Pendleton center and defensive tackle Everett Willard said. “I thought he handled everything so well, as good as he could have. He was a leader on the field and that’s exactly what we needed.”
Davis also liked what he saw from his senior QB.
“Without watching film, I thought it was a tremendous opener for him,” he said. “I think he’s going to learn a lot from film. But to see him run the offense like he did and get out and create mismatch problems with his feet and then be able to distribute the ball when we asked him, it was a great performance. I’m just really proud of him, he’s wanted this starting position for a long time and he’s earned it.”
Pendleton’s first touchdown of the season came on a trick play near the end of the first quarter. Sorey took the snap in the shotgun and threw a bubble screen to the right flat to Blake Davis, who drew the attention of the La Grande defenders and missed receiver Walker Camp slip behind the defense. Davis pulled up and threw it downfield to a wide-open Camp, who caught it for the 44-yard score. Camp finished the game with four catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns and Davis ended up as the team’s leading receiver with five catches for 93 yards.
Sorey notched his first touchdown pass of the season late in the second quarter when he hooked up with Cam Sandford on a quick slant and then watched Sandford simply outrun the defense up the middle of the field 36 yards to the end zone, putting the Buckaroos up 22-0. In the third quarter, Sorey showed off his speed, running a read-option keeper 23 yards to the house to bump the Buckaroos to a 29-6 lead.
“One of the best feelings you can get in football is when the guys running behind you are succeeding,” Willard said. “And you know you’re doing your job.”
The Buckaroos bumped their lead to 31-12 early in the fourth when Kirk Liscom and Josh Whaley teamed up to tackle Robinson in the end zone for a safety. Unofficially, Liscom had four sacks and 15 tackles from his middle linebacker position, one of several individuals that made the unit so strong.
“We’re a family, man,” Liscom said. “We get along great and we all have fun when we’re playing out there. We all went in prepared, worked our butt off and it was the outcome we wanted so it feels good.”
Now the Buckaroos will turn their attention to the Hood River Valley Eagles for their first district game of the season. The Buckaroos wanted to be 1-0 heading to that game, and now that they are, there is a new goal already set for Week 2.
“Our goal now is 2-0,” Davis said. “And we’re not going to look past this, just build on what these guys have going now. I’m excited.”