HERMISTON — Mark Hodges’ defense was suspect at times last year. While playing better for most of this season, they may have finally turned the corner.
The Hermiston Bulldogs picked off three passes and returned them for touchdowns last week in a 56-10 pounding of The Dalles Wahtonka. The pick-sixes might be the crescendo in a season of growing defensive strength, which coach Hodges credits to a change along the sidelines in the offseason.
“We put in a new system this year with coach (David) Faaeteete that was quite complex and that took some time to adjust to,” Hodges said. “There were still some issues in the early season and we have a young secondary, but things are really seeming to gel right about now.”
And not a moment too soon for a Bulldogs team that is deadlocked at the top of the Columbia River Conference with Pendleton and only two games left on the regular season schedule. Each team is 4-2 overall with a 1-0 record in league play.
Hermiston will look to add to its conference win total Friday when it takes on the Hood River Valley Eagles (1-5, 0-1 CRC) at Kennison Field. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
“We’ll play our game and we should go in against (Hood River Valley) with all the confidence in the world,” Gabriel said. “Going 2-0 in conference here would give us even more confidence that we need to go in and play (Pendleton) tough. And we hope that will be the case.”
To get there, first the Bulldogs will need to withstand the passing prowess of the Eagles’ star quarterback, senior Cody Walker. Walker gashed Pendleton’s secondary last week for more than 400 passing yards but came up short in the win column as his team lost 31-24.
Walker’s skill set is deep enough to cause any defensive coach fits, even with Faaeteete’s complex schemes. Hodges said Walker can pass, run and bowl over would-be tacklers, likening the dynamic quarterback to an Eastern Oregon version of the Pittsburgh Steelers’s Ben Roethlisberger.
“He’s definitely the best quarterback we’ll see this year for sure,” Hodges said. “He always keeps them in the game. He has the ability to extend plays and that makes it a tough road for us.”
Hermiston will counter with their own dynamic playmaker, senior running back Bobby Adams. Adams topped the 200-yard mark in last week’s victory for the fourth straight game and also scored five touchdowns.
With Adams in his backfield and a matured defense attacking the ball, Hodges said, opponents will have a tough time outscoring these Bulldogs.