Football is nothing if not physical, but it’s the mental aspect of the sport that Baker coach Jason Ramos is focusing on as the Bulldogs prepare for a Class 4A playoff game Saturday.
Baker will travel across the state to Turner, just southeast of Salem, to take on the Cascade Cougars in a 1 p.m. kickoff.
The Cougars, champions of the Oregon West Conference with a 5-0 record (7-1 overall) are not especially imposing from a size standpoint, said Ramos, who in his first year as head coach has guided the Bulldogs to a 5-3 record and second place in the three-team Greater Oregon League.
“We’re bigger than they are up front,” Ramos said.
But the Cougars employ a double wing offense that features plenty of misdirection with multiple backs capable of carrying the ball on any given play.
Defending that scheme, Ramos said, requires that the Bulldogs stick to their assignments and not be drawn out of position by fakes. In other words, to be as ready mentally as they are physically.
“We’ve got to be disciplined on defense,” Ramos said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Based on video of Cascade’s games he’s watched, Ramos said Cascade quarterback Jacob Hage is a good athlete, and Ethan Coffey and Blake Lewis are solid running backs.
Elijah Nolan looks to be the Cougars’ main threat at receiver.
Although Cascade and Baker have no common opponents this year, Ramos said the Cougars’ offensive system is similar to La Grande’s, although La Grande’s offensive players are bigger.
Ramos said he’s confident that Baker’s defense can deal with Cascade’s double wing.
“We feel like with our defensive scheme we’re flexible enough to handle just about anything,” he said. “I think we match up with them very well. We’ve played really good defense all year.”
On paper it’s that matchup — Baker’s defense against Cascade’s offense — that stands out as a potential key.
Baker has allowed an average of 15 points in its eight games, and the Bulldogs blanked both Nyssa and Ontario.
Cascade, meanwhile, has scored an average of 37.6 points per game, including 63 and 64 in its last two games.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Cougars haven’t been as dominant defensively as Baker, at least based on numbers.
The Cougars have allowed an average of 17 points, including giving up 39 points to Stayton and 29 to North Marion — both wins for Cascade.
Baker surrendered 34 points in each of its two losses to league rival La Grande, which is ranked third in the state, but in each of its five wins Baker didn’t give up more than 14 points.
Ramos said he’s optimistic about the Bulldogs’ ability to score points against Cascade — in part due to the health benefits of having two weeks off since their last game, Oct. 26 at La Grande.
“We’re probably as healthy as we’ve been for a month,” Ramos said.
Among the players who have recovered from injuries is senior quarterback Spencer Shirtcliff, who suffered a separated shoulder Sept. 27 at Ontario and missed two games and parts of two others.
Ramos said Shirtcliff has “looked good” in recent practices and is slated to start under center against Cascade.
“Offensively we think we’ve got a pretty good gameplan both running and throwing the ball,” Ramos said.
He’s also confident should the game turn on special teams.
Mahonri Rushton has become a weapon at place kicker, booting a pair of field goals and being “close to automatic” on extra points, Ramos said.
“That is part of our arsenal now,” he said. “If it’s within 35 or even 40 yards, we’re going to let him give it a go if needed.”
Ramos said Caden Long’s punting has also helped Baker avoid field position problems.
Ramos said the Bulldogs, who leave today for Cascade, are confident.
“I think the kids believe we’re good enough to go maybe as far as we can,” he said. “As long as we play up to our potential I think the sky’s the limit. I’m really proud of the season we’ve had so far.”
Brandon Bennett, in his fourth season as the Cougars’ head coach, said he’s not misled by Baker’s 5-3 record.
He’s well aware that the two teams that have beaten the Bulldogs — La Grande twice, and Homedale, Idaho, once — are both undefeated.
“Baker is definitely a good football team,” Bennett said. “That their losses are to undefeated teams, that tells the story more than a 5-3 record. The numbers don’t tell you how good their defense is.”
Bennett said he’s pleased with Cascade’s progress in adjusting to an all-new offensive system.
For the previous several years the Cougars used a power-I formation that relied heavily on one running back. But this summer, after looking at his returning roster, Bennett decided to switch to the double wing to accommodate the “plethora of backs we have.”
“There’s a learning curve, and we’re starting to hit our stride,” Bennett said.
Although Hage, the Cascade quarterback, is a sophomore, he’s already a veteran, Bennett said. Hage started the last six games for the Cougars in 2018, leading them to four wins and a playoff berth.
“He’s really taken a leadership role,” Bennett said of Hage.