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St. Helens welcomes in one of Class 5A's best teams

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Quarterback Gage Bumgardner stiffarms an opponent in the second half of the Lions' victory over Cleveland. Bumgardner had five touchdowns last Friday night, including the final two that pushed St. Helens to the win in the last two overtimes.The learning curve doesn’t get much steeper for 5A than it is in the Northwest Oregon Conference. The NWOC went 8-3 on week one, with only two losses in non-league games. Two of the conferences’ eight teams are ranked in the top 10, according to an OregonLive.com poll. Now with one of their two non-league games out of the way, St. Helens will welcome Wilsonville to town as the season heats up.

In contrast to Cleveland, Wilsonville lost in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs last year. They’re ranked 7th in the division, and beat up on Sprague - who lost in last year’s 6A quarterfinals - a week ago. The key to that victory, which Wilsonville took 23-7, was the Wildcat’s defense. Leading 9-7 at halftime, Wilsonville shut down Sprague in the second half, forcing three interceptions and two fumbles.

One of the three interceptions was returned for a touchdown for Wilsonville, who relied on the steadiness of running back Derek Sunkle and a relentless ground game. 147 rushing yards for Sunkle outgained the entire Sprague offense, but Sunkle’s talents aren’t just as a bruising back. Sunkle also caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tyler Carskadon, and broke through the defense for a 73-yard touchdown run.

That combination of a ferocious defense and reliable offense presents a number of problems for St. Helens.

Against Cleveland, a missed tackle or a missed read didn’t always result in huge yardage. The Warriors were fairly disorganized, and quarterback Scott Brant had trouble connecting with star receiver Jonathan Weaver. When Weaver caught the ball, he was a difficult player to bring down, but he was one of the few weapons that Cleveland had.

Wilsonville, while not loaded at receiver, had six different players carry the ball last Friday, led by Sunkle’s 16 touches. Conversely, Carskadon attempted only 14 passes, completing four of them for just 53 yards. While part of that might be the horrendously low completion percentage, Wilsonville doesn’t need the passing game to win. They’re old school. Not only does that mean they can retain possession for long periods of time, but the ball being on the ground makes it harder to force turnovers.

What the Lions need to do

Ball security is essential. The five turnovers against Cleveland simply won’t cut it against a superior team like Wilsonville, especially interceptions. Gage Bumgardner threw into protected areas a number of times against the Warriors, and if that happens against Wilsonville, St. Helens will find themselves buried before they know what hit them. On that same note, it’s rare a team can pull off a victory after being flagged as often as St. Helens was. The Lions will need a game free of turnovers and as clear of penalties as possible.

Quarterback Gage Bumgardner will have to improve on his passing accuracy. There were a number of dropped passes and broken play situations, but his ability to make quick and accurate throws downfield will put pressure on the secondary and make blitzing more dangerous. If Wilsonville has to pull players off the defensive line to help cover the backfield, that opens up more holes for Tanner Long.

Defensively, the Lions have to slow Derek Sunkle. If they can force Wilsonville to go to the passing game, they have a much larger chance of success. Carskadon isn’t the best passer, and if he is throwing the ball 30 or more times with the same completion percentage, that gives a lot of possessions back to the Lions.

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