The fog in Hermiston made it a bit tricky to see Saturday night’s state semifinal game.
One fact, though, was unmistakable — the La Grande Tigers didn’t have any issues finding the end zone.
Nathan Reed rushed for 185 yards and three touchdowns and caught a fourth, Parker Robinson threw three touchdown passes, and the Tigers controlled every facet of the game on the way to a 68-0 win over The Dalles Riverhawks in the Class 4A semifinals.
“This is everything,” said senior defensive back Josh Zollman, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the win. “I’ve been dreaming of this since freshman year. This is everything to me. I'm so excited I can't think.”
Next up, the state championship game, where La Grande will face the defending state champion Banks Braves — who won Saturday’s other semifinal game over Marist, 56-31 — in next Saturday’s 4A final, which will be played at 6 p.m. in Hermiston.
The Tigers (11-0 overall) quickly made it apparent it would be their night, forcing a 3-and-out on The Dalles’ first series and getting on the board shortly after on a 42-yard TD reception by Payton Cooper for a 7-0 lead.
The wave of blue and white kept coming non-stop as the Tigers basically did whatever they wanted. La Grande found the end zone in the running game — Reed scored on running plays of 1 and 29 yards in the first half and added a 62-yard run on the second play of the third to make it 45-0, Robinson added a 56-yard TD run in the first half, and Brody MacMillan had a 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth — and through the air — Robinson added a 46-yard deep pass to Blaine Shaw and a 40-yarder to Reed on a screen to help the Tigers build a 39-0 halftime lead.
“We’re so dangerous at running and passing, so we keep defenses on their toes,” Reed said. “If they start keying on the run game and slowing that down, Parker will go and throw a touchdown and that will open up the run game again. It’s super hard to stop our dominant run game and dominant passing game.”
Even the defense and special teams got in on the scoring act. Shaw returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter, and Zollman returned his interception 17 yards to make the score 61-0 midway through the third quarter.
“Coach (Matt) Wolcott did a phenomenal job of getting the kids dialed in on defense,” head coach Rich McIlmoil said. “(We) knew what to expect. We had a couple ideas of what they were going to try to do. We had a feeling they would probably try to pass it on us more because we have a pretty solid run defense.”
The Tigers scored on their first eight possessions and weren’t stopped on offense until the final minute of the game. La Grande piled up 499 yards of total offense and 365 on the ground, easily its highest total of the postseason in both categories. Robinson followed Reed’s big night with 94 yards rushing, and MacMillan had 64 yards rushing.
“We just played great and we executed,” Robinson, who was 4-for-7 passing for 134 yards, said. “Coach Mac has put in his heart and soul. Same with Wolcott and all these coaches. I try to think we just play for then, and that we just play La Grande football. I’m so pumped for my team and coaches. We’re a step closer to our goal.”
The performance amounted to La Grande’s most dominant win of the season over a team that, on paper, looked as if it would be able to keep the contest closer than the 48-14 rout when the teams met in September. The Riverhawks had won five of their past six entering the game, and had a key player available who missed the first game — leading receiver Zac Anderson.
It became clear in a hurry that wouldn’t be the case. La Grande snuffed out the Riverhawks’ running game, holding The Dalles to just 71 first-half yards rushing. The Dalles (7-5) had some success through the air, but only once in the first half moved inside the La Grande 30. The Dalles also turned the ball twice, both of which led to two more Tiger touchdowns.
“We thought it was going to be a dogfight. They got better, but we got way better,” senior lineman Spencer Gerst said.
The Dalles finished with 167 yards in the first half, and 277 for the game, a week after amassing 500 yards in a 58-51 shootout victory over Tillamook.
Denver Neill rushed for 132 yards for The Dalles. Okean Green, the Riverhawks’ leading rusher, had just 15 yards rushing but added 54 yards receiving.
“This team can move the football, so it says a lot about coach Wolcott as a coach,” McIlmoil said. “They just dial this defense in, they know what to expect and they play hard on a weekly basis.”
Both Banks and La Grande will be playing for their second state championship in football. The Braves defeated Seaside in last year's title game, 31-20. La Grande's most recent championship game was a 26-7 win over Corvallis in the 1974 title game. Both programs are 1-2 all-time in the final.
Editor's note: This story has been updated.