PENDLETON — The first one finally came for the Pendleton Buckaroos. But that was against the lowest ranked team in Class 4A football.
Win No. 2 will take a little more work.
Coming off a 42-6 dismantling of La Grande last week, the Bucks (1-3) will next face Baker (3-1), the perennial Greater Oregon League contender and currently the state’s sixth ranked team in 4A. The search for the second starts at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds.
“We as a team we weren’t focused and that happens sometimes but it was too much,” senior linebacker and tight end Jack Ezell said. “I fall guilty, too, for having a few penalties and I’m ashamed of it.”
This week at the end of practices, first-year head coach Erik Davis has sent his boys running. The 50-yard sprints are less a punishment, and more an excuse to continue conditioning. A well-conditioned team is less likely to make careless mistakes because disciplined players are less likely to get caught out of position.
That’s the secret weapon in the battle against penalties. And also against the big-play capabilities of the Baker Bulldogs.
Baker has feasted on opponents using the quick strike this season. Just last week, in a 49-7 drubbing of Vale, the Bulldogs ran only eight offensive plays in the first quarter and change while building a 36-0 lead. That period included a 42-yard touchdown pass by Braden Phillips as well as a a few pounces from an opportunistic defense.
“It’s going to come down to assignment football,” Pendleton’s Davis said. “It’s doing your job. We’ll put you in the right position to be successful. Don’t try and do someone else’s job. If they do the task put in front of them, then we have an opportunity to be successful.”
To keep Baker from stretching the field, Davis said the Bucks will use more two-safety formations, giving the cornerbacks help over the top. That could go a long way to neutralizing the vertical passing game of Phillips, a 6-foot-4 senior with a left-handed release.
But stopping the run is also a big priority. Baker’s Trent Taylor, another senior, showed his explosiveness against Vale with 146 yards on just nine carries.
Davis doesn’t want this game to turn into a shootout, but the Buckaroos on offense have the capabilities to keep up with most teams in that scenario. Senior quarterback Connor Johnson has two 300-yard passing performances in Pendleton’s four games so far, including a three-touchdown outing last week in La Grande.
“We’ve been having great blocking and Connor makes the right reads and throws great passes,” said receiver TJ Hancock, who caught a 74-yard score from Johnson on the game’s opening drive. “He makes it easy for wide receivers to make plays.”
Friday will mark the first true home game for Pendleton inside the Round-Up Arena after three games on the road and one at the high school’s practice field to open the season.
“It’s time, we’re ready,” Davis said. “We’ve kind of been road warriors and we’ve ridden enough yellow school buses for awhile now...
“I want to make sure tradition stands strong and that the Round-Up Grounds are definitely a place, a little sacred I guess for Pendleton football.”
Baker coach David Johnson understands that sentiment.
“Their 1-3 record does not reflect the caliber of football team they are,” Johnson told the Baker City Herald. “It should be fun for our guys. It’s always a different atmosphere at the Round-Up Grounds. In many ways it’s almost like a playoff game for us.”
#Pendleton will play its next three games at home now that the annual rodeo extravaganza has passed. The cavernous-stadium setting makes for a much better home-field advantage, Ezell said. And that’s something the Bucks will try to capitalize on heading into the Columbia River Conference season in three weeks.
“It’s a feeling that can’t be replaced,” Ezell said. “It’s unexplainable...it’s like a movie scene kind of.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.