If you are a Hermiston Bulldogs fan, Friday night was immeasurably stressful. It took Hermiston a quarter and a half to score in the football team’s 17-0 win over Sandy, and the offense looked confused, even overwhelmed, at times.

I think Sandy played a very good game, maybe even its best of the year, at least defensively. The front seven pushed around the Bulldogs’ offensive line for three quarters and grabbed the momentum whenever Hermiston was about to make a move.

Obviously, the fourth quarter was different story — a much different story.

Hermiston’s first scoring drive started in the third quarter and took 12 plays and 4:53, by far the longest drive of the game to that point. The offensive line was finally starting to get a push. Sam Colbray was finally starting to hit the hole, and Chase Knutz was finally starting to hit open receivers.

It was the Hermiston offense we’ve seen all year.

That wasn’t the story of the game, however. The story of the game was the Bulldogs’ defense.

All but one of Sandy’s drives ended in a punt, and that was a fourth-quarter interception by Sheridan Zumwalt, which set up a 37-yard field goal by Bulldog Luis Medina.

Columbia River Conference defensive player of the year Trey Neal said it was important for the defense to keep Sandy down until Hermiston’s offense could find a way to put up some points. That’s obviously the right sentiment, but the topic of my column Saturday was driven home.

It was arguably the worst three quarters Hermiston has played all season long. Knutz was missing open receivers. He was getting sacked with more frequency than any other game this season, at least those that I’ve seen. Carson Morter dropped a touchdown pass that Knutz threw accurately. Cory Adams left in the second quarter with a head injury and was in sweat pants in the second half.

So much was going wrong, but the players still had each other’s backs. They wanted to win as a group, not attain individual glory.

Was there frustration?

You bet. Being on the sideline, I got an interesting glance into what happened down there. The athletes weren’t happy. The coaches weren’t happy. I assume the fans weren’t happy either.

There was no one thing that changed the tide for the Bulldogs, no switch that flipped. They just started making plays. They made the tough block instead of whiffing it. They made the throw, the catch or the tackle, or hit the hole.

Now that might sound like a switch was flipped, but I didn’t feel that way. I still don’t. I saw a team that sticks to the game plan and what it does well and won because of that. It’s like a shooter in basketball. A good shooter who is in a slump has to shoot out of it. It’s the same with this Hermiston team. It shot its way out of the three-quarter slump.

I’m also a believer that it’s hard to beat a team twice. This conversation always comes up in the NFL or NBA during the playoffs when a team has swept the season series over another and they meet in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series.

So let’s take a look at these two games.

In the first matchup, in week six in Sandy, Hermiston absolutely bullied the Pioneers. The final score was 56-17, but it didn’t feel even that close. The Bulldogs completely dominated a pretty good Sandy team.

Those blowouts stick with guys. They can go one of two ways: The loser wants another shot, with the athletes’ mindset that they are going to prove they’re better than what they showed before, or, they can pray to everything holy they don’t have to face that team again and, when then do, they get blown out again.

Sandy was the former. The Pioneers hoped to get another shot at Hermiston, and they did. Neal acknowledged that, saying he was pretty sure they wanted another shot at his team.

I think it’s safe to say Sandy played about as well as it could have against one of the best teams in the state in the 5A division. Holding the Bulldogs’ offense to 17 points and about 200 yards of total offense is a major accomplishment. The problem was, Hermiston’s defense played just as well, if not better, and that was the difference.

I’m not going to make any predictions about future games, but head coach Mark Hodges put it nicely by saying succinctly: “You gotta win ugly games.”

Well, that game was ugly. And Hermiston won. That’s a good team.

— Sam Barbee is the Hermiston Herald sports reporter. He can be reached at sbarbee@hermistonherald.com

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