Expectations for the 2015 Hermiston Bulldogs football couldn’t have been higher.

Fresh off the first state football title in school history, the Bulldogs would be playing with an almost entirely new group after the graduation of most of the state title-winning 2014 squad. Bob Coleman said any expectations short of repeating would be “selling ourselves short.”

Two games into Hermiston’s season, just having the opportunity to defend its title seemed far off. The Bulldogs lost those first two games by a combined score of 95-26, and lost starting wide receiver Ethan Snow in the process.

The injuries began to mount. Next to go down was starting running back Jonathan Hinkle, then starting quarterback Dayshawn Neal, then the offensive line was hit hard.

Even with all that adversity, the Hermiston Bulldogs (4-5, 3-0) are Columbia River Conference champions, again, and in the playoffs — again.

“We’re pretty excited,” Bulldogs head coach David Faaeteete said. “We knew we’d be in the this situation if we executed late in the stretch...We’re excited, the kids are excited that they’ll be hosting the game. Then we saw the draw, not too excited.”

The Bulldogs got huge contributions from new varsity players. Vaemu Ena, who sat out the War on 84 with a shoulder injury, stepped into a safety role and had key interceptions against Sandy and Hood River Valley, both wins. Nathan Hunsaker, whom Neal beat for the starting job out of fall camp, broke out against Pendleton with a huge game on the ground. Tre Neal has led a defense that got stronger and tougher as the season wore on.

Now, seeded eighth, the Bulldogs will host the Wilsonville Wildcats (8-1, 6-1) this Friday at 7 p.m. at Kennison Stadium. The Bulldogs and the Wildcats both played Sandy, who hails from Wilsonville’s Northwest Oregon Conference, Sept. 11 and won 53-3. Hermiston just slipped by the Pioneers 13-7 in double overtime.

“They’re well-coached. They execute on offense,” Faaeteete said. “They have a great defense, have great kids and they play really hard all the time. We’re lucky to be able to play a program like this.”

The Wildcats are an athletic bunch with numerous weapons. They have two quarterbacks who are capable throwers. The starter, Connor Neville, is a junior who has thrown a touchdown pass in each game this season. Against Liberty two weeks ago, a game Wilsonville lost 40-37, Neville passed for 507 yards on 31 completions and four touchdowns. He threw four picks in that game, though, and he has five on the season. The week before, in a 45-14 win over Putnam, he threw for six touchdowns, 407 yards and had just five incomplete passes. Overall, Neville has passed for 2,198 yards on 68 percent passing for 30 touchdowns. Neville, a three-start recruit, currently has offers from Washington State and Boise State.

Neville missed Wilsonville’s 63-14 win over Parkrose, and the senior backup Tom Gomez stepped in capably. He tossed four touchdowns — and three interceptions — while eclipsing the 300-yard mark.

Whoever plays quarterback Friday will have some serious targets. Harrison Steiger has been a menace to secondaries all season. The junior has caught 40 passes this season for 821 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns. He’s caught a pass and a touchdown in each game he’s played this season, and caught ten balls for 232 yards and three touchdowns in the Wildcats’ 40-37 loss to Liberty two weeks ago.

But he’s not alone. Jonny Neville has been a threat in the passing game, just not as worrisome as Steiger. He still must be accounted for, however, as he’s caught 29 balls for 548 yards and 11 touchdowns. He, too, has caught a pass in every game this season, though he was held without a touchdown in Wilsonville’s 59-14 win over Hillsboro last week.

“The key to stopping the great offense is keeping them off the field,” Faaeteete said. “We gotta execute on offense on our end and play the keep-away game: run the ball well, throw the ball efficiently. And when we are on defense, get to the quarterback, create second-and-long, third-and-long situations so it’s an easier game for me to call. That being said, it’s not gonna be easy to keep this offense in check. They’ve been putting up numbers all year long.”

Wilsonville can run it, too, though it’s not the strength of the its offense. No Wilsonville running back ever received more than 11 carries in any game this year, and no Wilsonville running back has rushed for more than 111 yards in any game. The running game is mainly a big play threat, with Elijah Benedick and Mason Craig each averaging more than 10 yards per carry. Andrew Merrick is the Wildcat’s leading rusher with 467 yards on just 63 carries and three touchdowns. Sophomore Taran Floyd has scored eight times on the ground.

Hermiston was able to get a good pass rush last week against Pendleton and the week before against Hood River Valley. Pendleton quarterback Kai Quinn, who has a strong arm, couldn’t step into any throws against the likes of Neal and Coleman, and those two will have to do the same against Neville, who only has 37 yards rushing on 23 tries this season. Once a dual-threat quarterback, Neville now wears two knee braces after a couple knee injuries. If the Bulldogs can get a good pass rush, make Neville uncomfortable in the pocket, as they did with Quinn, Hermiston can disrupt the timing passes Wilsonville likes and potentially force some mistakes.

But the task, offensively and defensively, will be a tall one for the Bulldogs.

“Our guys are gonna look at film, and they’re gonna see that the task at hand is a large one,” Faaeteete said. “You go out there and you fight, be courageous and then at the end, when the chips fall, you’re holding your head held high. It’s football. Someone’s gotta lose. It’s what’s great about this game. Anything can happen on Friday night. Crazier things have happened. We just gotta execute on offense and get home on defense and have fun.”

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