Pendleton football coach Erik Davis understands the challenge his team faces Friday night in Ashland.
The Buckaroos will be traveling across the state — a road trip so long they're spreading it across two days — to face one of Class 5A football's two remaining undefeated teams at Walter A. Phillips Field, where the third-ranked Grizzlies haven't lost since September of 2011.
But Davis also knows the makeup of his team, both its talent level and its character, and he's confident that the Buckaroos have what it takes to pull off a shocker in the first round of the 5A state playoffs.
When/Where: 7 p.m. Friday at Walter A. Phillips Field, Ashland.
Matchup: The Grizzlies (9-0) and Buckaroos (8-2) have a combined two losses, less than any other first-round matchup in the 5A playoffs.
On the Web: Links to live streaming video and live stats will be available at ashalndfootballclub.com.
"Our kids are pretty resilient," said Davis, whose team placed second to ninth-ranked Hermiston in the Columbia River Conference. "They could easily make the 1,000-mile trip an excuse but our kids don't do that. We're going to try to extend the season just like Ashland is.
"We'll take that underdog role and we'll run with it. Not many people are probably giving us too much of a chance, but the only people that matter are riding the bus down."
The round of 16 game is scheduled to kickoff at 7 p.m. The winner will face either seventh-ranked Roosevelt or Marist in the state quarterfinals Nov. 8.
Though Davis is comfortable playing the underdog card, his Buckaroos (8-2) lit up the scoreboard and most of their opponents during the regular season. Led by senior quarterback Chad McCoy, the pass-happy Bucks have scored 390 points, second only to No. 1 Sherwood in 5A football. They did most of that damage through the air, as the 6-foot, 185-pound McCoy has thrown for 2,838 yards and 30 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
It was more of the same for Pendleton in its 50-6 play-in win over Jefferson last week — McCoy completed 21 of 31 passes for 332 yards and four touchdown passes to four different receivers.
"He's a leader," Davis said of McCoy. "He's got a great arm and he's really dived into the football IQ part of the game, understanding what we're doing and why we're doing it. He uses his feet, throws on the move well. And he's really matured into a leader, and that has taken my offense and made it his."
The Buckaroos employ a wide-open offense that at times forces opposing defenses to cover five receivers at a time, which is part of the reason why they have three receivers with 40 catches or more: TJ Hancock (51 catches, 699 yards), Isaiah Polhamus (46 catches, 689 yards) and Quentin Quaempts (43 catches, 533 yards).
So Ashland's secondary, led by Carter Glick and Matt Hedges, will be tested.
"(McCoy) can throw the ball all over the place," said Ashland head coach Charlie Hall, whose team was idle last week after claiming its first Midwestern League title and wrapping up a 9-0 regular season. "He's got deep, middle and short throws. He doesn't run a whole lot, but he doesn't have a lot of negative yardage either. So I think he's efficient in what he does in terms of avoiding the first guy and finding somebody else and getting rid of the ball. I don't think he takes a lot of sacks."
Of course, McCoy hasn't faced Ashland yet, either, and the Grizzlies' defense ramped up its pass rush over its last two games to finish the regular season with 31 1/2 sacks, including five against Eagle Point. Getting to McCoy will be a chore, however. He's protected by a pair of tackles that tip the scales at 270 and 290 pounds.
Cutting through that beef may be the key to slowing down Pendleton, which averages 426 yards per game of total offense.
"Hopefully, we can put some pressure on (McCoy)," Ashland senior middle linebacker Mason Montgomery said. "I'm not too worried about it. We play in a passing league so it's not like we haven't seen that before, so I think we can deal with it pretty well. I think we'll do good."
When Ashland has the ball, it will go up against a Pendleton defense that's designed to take away the run. The Buckaroos rely on tight man-to-man coverage in the secondary and a defensive line that, according to Hall, rivals fifth-ranked Sprinfield's in both size and physicality.
That strategy may backfire against Ashland quarterback Danial White, who's completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns with only two interceptions while also running for 413 yards and eight more scores.
Ryne Robitz leads the Grizzlies with 548 yards rushing and Hedges is the Grizzlies' leading receiver with 418 yards and six TDs.
"They play what I call zero coverage, where there's no free safety help "¦ and I think we need to test that early in the game to see what that's going to look like," Hall said. "If they're going to put seven guys in the box then we're not going to be able to run the ball — we're not going to try to run the ball. We're going to have to try to pass the ball. If, for whatever reason, Danial's not on and we can't protect the quarterback it could be a long night."
And that's exactly what the Buckaroos are hoping for.
"We know they have playmakers," Davis said. "They use misdirection a little bit, and play-action. We just have to strap on the helmets and try to stop their running game. That's what scares me a little bit."