HERMISTON — With only three games to their conference football schedule, the Hermiston Bulldogs know the necessity for each win is exponential.
Even with contests in the rearview mirror like September’s one-score loss to Sherwood, the state’s top Class 5A team, this week’s matchup in Hood River now feels like Hermiston’s biggest game of the year.
“You know at this point I think it is … right now this is counting on a (Columbia River Conference) title,” said Bulldogs’ center Damian Martinez.
For Hermiston, the OSAA’s No. 6 team in 5A football, defense has flexed its muscles in recent weeks during the Dawgs’ three-game winning streak. Opponents have averaged just above eight points per game when the Bulldogs’ victories have come by no fewer than 30 points. That tenacious D will need to be in full force this week against an Eagles team that’s very efficient in the scoring department.
“They can do a lot of different things; they have a dynamic attack that can hit you in a lot of different ways,” Hermiston coach Mark Hodges said. “Their ability to put points on the board, they’ve shown the ability to do that against good teams.”
No. 16 Hood River Valley leads the CRC with 253 points scored and is just fractions of a point behind Hermiston on the points-per-game scale. Led by senior quarterback Luke Kopecky, who threw for 257 yards and two scores in a blowout victory in Pendleton last week, the Eagles will try to spread the ball around on offense.
Fullback Eli Fults is more a threat out of the backfield to catch passes than as a runner and Hermiston must also account for receiver Parker Young on every play, Dawgs’ cornerback Ramon Contreras said.
“We’ve got to be sharp on the short passes because they throw a lot of short passes and try and lure us into those so they can throw something deep and trick us,” Contreras said.
For Hermiston to find success offensively, the Bulldogs will need to keep riding the horses that got them to this point. Hermiston has thrived on the ground, wearing down defenses five yards and a cloud of dust at a time. And when opponents throw up the white flag in the war in the trenches, the backs go for the long gash.
Trenten Anteau and Cory Adams both average 5.4 yards per tote or better and have 16 touchdowns between them.
“We want to run the ball so we can give the other team something to be scared of,” said Martinez, a junior. “We want to establish running the ball and then (quarterback) Chase (Knutz) can do a good job throwing the ball when he can.”
When Knutz drops back to pass, he’ll be seeing a lot of man coverage in the secondary. The Eagles have good team speed on defense and like to plug the running lanes with extra defenders up front, relying on their cornerbacks to shut down the passing game with one-on-one coverage.
Speed has been a Bulldog secret weapon, especially on defense, for much of this season as well. Hermiston’s defense has been a wrecking crew on turf in particular, as evident by the six-turnover demoralizer Hermiston laid on Southridge (WA) at Neil F. Lampson Stadium in Kennewick, Wash., two weeks ago.
Nature may be the great equalizer in that category this week, though. With rain in the forecast and soggy conditions already bogging down the field in Hood River, neither team will have its speedsters on the prowl.
“That’s something that we have to really be mindful of, that we’ve got to keep our footing, keep our feet up under us because all of a sudden that could become a problem,” Hodges said.
Following Friday’s clash, the Bulldogs will prepare for rivalry week and a date with the Pendleton Buckaroos (1-6, 0-1 CRC) in Hermiston the following Friday, the final game on the regular-season schedule.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.