EUGENE — Hermiston has faced some of the most explosive prep football athletes in Oregon this season, experiencing varying degrees of success in the quest to shut them down.
There was the running back dynamo Spencer Payne, who scored six touchdowns for McMinnville. There was Sherwood star back Cristian Morris, who rushed 114 yards but no scores. And last week came titanic quarterback Justin Adams of Sandy, a 6-foot-6 gunslinger who threw five interceptions against the Hermiston secondary.
“Marist has got quite the collection of athletes,” Hermiston coach Mark Hodges said, knowing his boys have their work cut out to defend them. “They’ve got athletes everywhere.”
The Spartans (8-1), champions of the Midwestern Conference, bring the No. 3 scoring offense from Class 5A football into their first-round playoff match with Hermiston today. The Bulldogs will need to spread their focus around on defense when the game kicks off in Eugene at 7 p.m. The question will be, can they do all that without spreading too thin?
The Marist offense is about as even as any could ever be, so perfectly rounded it’s hard to believe it exists in nature. The Spartans pass for 209.8 yards per game and run for 209.6.
Quarterback Kamerun Smith, a senior, is possibly the most efficient passer on any 5A team. He’s thrown for 1,777 yards with 25 touchdowns. Nearly a quarter of his completions have gone for scores. His top wide receiver threat, senior Josh Harper, has caught 13 of those touchdowns.
Out of the backfield, running backs Austin Pair and Andrew Park have combined for 1,300 yards and 17 more rushing touchdowns — not to mention Baird’s seven receiving TDs. When the senior touches the ball, he averages 12.4 yards on the play.
Defending an offensive unit that scores 43 points per game, one that has only once been held below 35 this season, would be a daunting task had the Bulldogs not come prepared. Hermiston has faced tough competition all year, such as pushing 5A’s No. 2 squad Sherwood late in the fourth quarter of a 35-28 loss, the same Bowmen that handed Marist its only loss this season 38-20.
“We can beat them,” Hermiston defensive back Alex Campbell said. “It’s going to take real sound defense and to do our assignments. We can’t screw up on anything.”
Hermiston, which earned a No. 7 seed in the state bracket, has only really had one bad game this season. But it’s the reason the Dawgs are a second-place team and not Columbia River Conference champions.
Hood River Valley, which lost in the play-in round at home to Putnam 20-14, prevailed in the CRC meeting 28-14 four weeks ago during the Bulldogs’ poorest performance of the season. But coach Hodges said his team has moved far from that defeat and is peaking right now, right when they need to be.
To keep the peak of that mountain extending upward and into the quarterfinals, Hermiston can’t let Marist get comfortable on either side of the ball. Forced turnovers, a Bulldog strong suit this year with 19 interceptions and nearly as many fumble recoveries, will be key to limit the Spartan’s possessions.
“We want to turn this into a street fight, we want to turn this into a brawl,” Hodges said. “We want to keep everything in front of us and make them earn every yard.
“And if the game’s tight going into the fourth quarter, we feel like we’ve got a really, really good chance.”
Hermiston’s defense will need to do some heavy lifting to pull out a win here with the Bulldogs’ offense not quite at the same level as the Spartans.
That doesn’t mean the Dawgs won’t put up points, though. Running back Trenten Anteau is nearing the 1,000-yard mark on the ground to go with 17 total touchdowns and hasn’t been held out of the end zone in a game yet. Quarterback Chase Knutz has 18 touchdowns to just six picks with almost 1,600 yards and has found his favorite receiving target.
After missing the first two games of the season, Alex Ortiz has a receiving touchdown in each of the last seven contests, including two scores and 150 yards last week against Sandy.
The victor of Friday’s contest survives another week and will play the winner of No. 6 Mountain View at No. 3 Wilsonville, also slated for tonight.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839