Who will be under center tonight when La Grande meets Ontario for the Greater Oregon League title?
At the beginning of the season, that question had an easy answer: Andrew Peasley. The senior quarterback, however, has been hampered by injuries that have kept him out of the lineup essentially the last three weeks. An injury to his throwing hand late in the team’s first matchup against Ontario left him sidelined the next week against The Dalles. A week later, he sustained a knee injury early in the Tigers’ GOL-opening win over Baker, which left him out for the rest of that matchup and for last week’s 34-0 win over McLoughlin.
Parker Robinson has stepped up in the last three weeks at quarterback, guiding the Tigers’ offense during those three wins and seemingly improving each time out. In those three contests, he threw for 491 yards and seven touchdowns, and added 205 yards rushing and a pair of scores.
“He’s doing pretty good. The Dalles game he was super nervous, which is normal for his first start of varsity. After that’s he’s been playing like himself,” Peasley said of Robinson. “He’s been scoring the ball, and it’s been fun to watch.”
But the sophomore was hit hard late in last week’s contest, suffering a rib injury. Like Peasley, Robinson is questionable for tonight’s 7 p.m. contest at Community Stadium.
They’re not the only dinged up players, either. Several other Tigers, from starters to reserves, are battling one injury or another. In fact, La Grande is dressing just 17 players tonight, according to the coaching staff.
Head coach Harold Shannon, however, isn’t worried about his players wearing down.
“The depth only hurts us in the event of an injury, filling in the pieces (and) putting the kids in the positions they can be the most successful,” he said. “That’s where we’d have to be concerned. I really don’t have any concern of the kids having to play every down. They seem to be pretty solid right now.”
Both Robinson and Peasley, who has thrown for 930 yards and 13 touchdowns and added five rushing scores, will judge if they’re able to go during warmups.
“I feel pretty good, but it’s kind of a game-time decision,” Robinson said. “If it’s too bad, I guess I won’t go.”
“Get out there, warm up, see how it feels and decide then,” Peasley said of his status.
If neither is able to go, it very well could be quarterback by committee, and G.T. Blackman would be the first player to try his hand at the position. Blackman has been taking reps at QB along with Robinson and Peasley this week.
Robinson isn’t concerned if it comes to that.
“G.T. is already a team leader, and I think the team would not miss a heartbeat,” he said. “He’s already a captain, and he can take the team if he has to.”
Shannon said if Peasley or Robinson — or both — can’t play, the concern is the ripple effect it could have in moving players around on both offense and defense.
“Every change causes three more changes. That’s kind of the chess game,” he said.
The uncertainty on offense could put a bigger onus on the La Grande defense, which surrendered 26 first-half points at Ontario Sept. 22, but stiffened in the second half of its 43-38 win. La Grande was trailing 26-23 at the break in that matchup, but scored 20 straight points in the second half to take control before Ontario scored two late touchdowns.
“The defense has to step up, in general,” linebacker Isaac Chamberlain said. “We’ve been doing great all season, but this game means a lot. We’re going to have to step up and stop that Ontario offense, which is pretty good.”
Ontario’s Mike Mejia and Ethan Kameshige were key pieces in the first matchup. Mejia threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns, and Kameshige rushed for 112 yards and a score.
“Mike is the leader, but really it’s just (about) making plays at the right time,” said Ontario head coach Erik Johnson, noting his team made some key mistakes down the stretch in the first contest with La Grande. “We had some key turnovers at crucial moments — big momentum-swinging plays. We have to take care of the ball better.”
Those two have been the spark plugs for Ontario all season. Mejia has thrown for 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns for Ontario, while Kameshige has amassed 994 yards on the ground and 11 scores.
Andy Sanchez and Adam Hawker have been the favorite targets of Mejia, with 701 and 518 receiving yards, respectively.
The La Grande defense has been stout the last three weeks, and is markedly improved over a year ago. The Tigers have allowed 12 points total in the last three weeks, and on the season are allowing just 19 points per game. Last Friday, they recorded their first shutout in nine years.
The offense, save for their 14-6 win over The Dalles, has been good, no matter who the quarterback is.
La Grande is averaging 37.1 points per game in its games against teams other than The Dalles.
That La Grande defense will be up against an Ontario squad that has an equally potent offense. Ontario has averaged 40.7 points per game in six games since its 60-21 loss to Fruitland, Idaho, in the season opener, and moved the ball well against La Grande in the first contest with more than 400 yards.
Defensively, Ontario is allowing 26.7 points per game, but that number drops to 16.8 in its five wins.
Johnson said the basics will be key for Ontario.
“That’s what it comes down to is just execution — offense, defense and special teams,” he said.
Tonight’s contest marks the third year in a row the teams have met in a regular-season finale that carried GOL
implications. La Grande topped Ontario, 46-43, in 2015 to claim the league title outright. Last year, Ontario earned a 42-26 win to force a three-way tie for the GOL, and ultimately earned the league’s top seed to state.
A La Grande win would mark the fourth year in a row the Tigers have won or shared the crown, a first in program history.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Shannon said. “They’ve worked really hard this year. It’s kind of a culmination of what they’ve done.”
The winner tonight automatically qualifies for the playoffs, which begin in two weeks, while the loser hosts a Class 4A play-in game next Friday or Saturday.
But despite what’s at stake, Johnson said his team is trying not to overemphasize what the contest means.
“We don’t look at the magnitude too much. All we can do is focus on ourselves, correct mistakes and go from there,” he said.