First and foremost, I want to congratulate the Hermiston football team on advancing to the state title game. It’s a big achievement and something for which the players can be proud.

But that’s not the Bulldogs’ ultimate goal. In the seven years under coach Mark Hodges, the team’s goal has never been “to be competitive,” “to be good” or “to win some games.” It’s always been about winning a championship, a state championship.

Now, the Bulldogs will get their chance. They will face No. 2-ranked and undefeated Silverton at 1 p.m. Saturday in Hillsboro for the 5A state championship title.

All year, I’ve been waiting for Hermiston to rely on its running the football, only because the Bulldogs have been able to do it successfully in every game. The only time the offense gets into a little trouble is when it becomes too reliant upon the passing game. Maybe there isn’t enough protection for Chase Knutz, maybe his passes are a little off-line or maybe the receivers have trouble getting open or catching the ball.

When they run the ball, however, the Bulldogs get yards. And points. Period.

Obviously the Hermiston defense has been playing well. The defensive unit has only allowed 14 points per game and has given up 30 just one time, to Coeur d’Alene the first week of October. Since then, the Bulldogs have allowed just 10 points per game, including a shutout of Sandy in the first round of the playoffs.

The semifinal game was a game of necessity. There wasn’t much left on the schedule to build up to, to improve upon. The moment was then. It was win or go home, and Hermiston saddled up its running game and rode it into the sunset.

I’m excited for this team. I really am. In high school, I played against future Oregon State Beaver Jordan Poyer and the state-champion Astoria football team in 2008, but I wasn’t close to that team. I didn’t see them (almost) every week and watch their progression. They beat us handily, and I knew they would make a run, but I didn’t care.

Since the first week I saw this team — week two against Kamiakin, the playoffs were inevitable, and a deep run was imminent. I’ve written at length about this team’s heart, gutsiness and courage. I’ve written about the Bulldogs’ ability to stay focused on the task at hand and their ability to not panic.

Everything was leading up to this one moment, this one game, and now it has arrived. The Bulldogs can see the summit; they just need to power through to the top.

We all know Silverton is good. The defense is arguably better than Hermiston’s, allowing 14 points once, 13 points twice, one touchdown five times and four shutouts. That works out to an average of exactly six points per game.

I think it’s safe to say this is the matchup most people who have followed 5A football want to see. Despite Hermiston’s No. 5 ranking, you could make a case that Hermiston is the second-best team in the state, with Silverton being the top choice. The rankings, with their own criteria, came out otherwise, and maybe that ended up benefiting Hermiston and Silverton.

The fact of the matter, though, is Silverton will be the best team Hermiston has played all year. And I don’t think the Bulldogs want it any other way.

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

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