HOOD RIVER — Just four games into the season and the Hood River Valley Eagles look like a sure-shot playoff team.
The Intermountain Conference’s No. 1 ranked defense and No. 1 ranked offense can be found right here in the Gorge. And last Friday night’s 28-6 win over Hermiston gave no indication that any of that would change.
The fireworks weren’t as brilliant as last week’s win over Summit. But HRV (4-0, 2-0 IMC) got the job done on both sides of the ball against the Bulldogs, recording three takeaways and scoring 21 points off of turnovers — all in the first half.
“If we were playing a little better, it could have easily been 35-0 at the half,” coach Mitch Sanders, whose defense has caused 14 turnovers in four games.
“Our defense is doing a great job of creating turnovers by running to the ball and making hits. And when you play good defensive football, you have a chance to win every game,” he said.
The varsity defense has only surrendered 20 points in four games, and it has also held its opponents to less than 300 total yards in three of four games.
Hermiston amassed 169 rushing yards and 112 passing yards for a total of 281. But three first-half fumbles sealed the Bulldogs’ fate as the clock-controlling Eagles methodically moved the ball down field drive after drive.
The most critical turnover took place at the 7:15 mark of the second quarter. With HRV leading 14-0 on two Rocky Level touchdowns, Hermiston fumbled a lateral pass on the HRV 13 yardline.
After picking up a first down at the 31 yardline, the Eagles were still deep in their own territory. And suddenly, it was 4th and 5 from the 36.
The Bulldogs were thinking they would have another chance to get on the board before halftime, but Level rolled off a 27-yard scramble on fourth down, setting up another HRV scoring drive that was capped by senior Kyle Maurer’s one-yard run.
“Hermiston made a lot of mistakes, and we were able to capitalize on them in the first half,” said senior lineman Zach Royall. “But we made our share of mistakes, too, and we still have a long way to go.”
Royall and the Eagles have no illusions about their 4-0 record, saying things like, “we haven’t played anybody yet,” and “we’re not even clicking yet.”
HRV only managed one second-half touchdown against Hermiston, and that didn’t even come until late in the fourth quarter when senior fullback Nigel Bond punched the ball in from one yard out.
One bright spot for the Eagles was that they completed their first three passes of the season — one by Maurer (20 yards), one by Level (25 yards), and one by quarterback Alex Princehouse (35 yards).
Tight ends Bryan Williams and Heath Goin hauled in the two long receptions, while Level grabbed the 20-yarder from Maurer late in the first quarter.
The Eagles would like to use their passing game more to free up the running backs, who were held to a season-low 282 yards on 51 attempts, led by Maurer’s season-high 116-yard performance.
“We still aren’t executing on a lot of our plays,” Royall said, “and that could be a problem against a better team.”
One such team is this week’s opponent, Bend, which is 3-1 on the season and 2-0 in the IMC after last week’s 59-33 thrashing of Pendleton.
“Bend is probably the surprise team in the league so far,” Sanders said. “Their running back (Matt Sieverson) is very good and they have a big, powerful line that could give us trouble. But I like to think our defense will be the difference once again.”
HRV’s linebacking corps has stayed strong throughout the first four games, with Luke McCarthy, Williams, Level and Casey Vannet making the biggest impact.
The secondary has also been steadily improving with Maurer and Terry Sanders at safety and Danny Newton, Alejandro Lozano and Nolan Johnson at the corners.
“This week’s game is going to be the biggest test for our defense,” said Royall, who is joined on the defensive line by Jorge Lujano, Jason DeHart, Goin and Bond.
“Bend has a strong running game and they can score points,” Royall said. “So we just have to work even harder now.”
The coaching staff is also aware of Bend’s rushing attack, which is led by Sieverson’s 1,000-plus yards in four games. Sanders equates the Lava Bears to his team last year: An explosive offense with a porous defense.
“The story of this game is going to be an athletic quarterback and running back against a solid, attacking defense,” he said. “I definitely think we have the advantage on defense, but Bend has a more explosive offense and a very good line. It will be our biggest test so far.”
However, the Eagles could get a boost from two returning players this week. Juniors Dominic Buttaccio and Justin Krizman have completed their four-game suspensions, and Sanders said both players will have a chance to contribute.
“They won’t start, but they will have an opportunity to play,” he said. “We are 4-0 because of the kids who are in there, so Dominic and Justin will have to earn time like everyone else.”