If the Reading Rangers hope to go on as magical a run as the 2009 postseason provided it has to start somewhere — and a home game against a deceptively impressive 6-3 Ottawa Lake Whiteford squad Friday is task number one.
The Bobcats clinched a playoff spot with a 20-8 win over Morenci last week, and they beat Pittsford by three touchdowns in week one. Reading head coach Rick Bailey said he is expecting quite a challenge from a team that had its only three losses against playoff teams.
“I think their overall record is misleading, they’ve played a very tough schedule which helps them get ready for this part of the season. We don’t really think of them as a 6-3 team, they look more like an 8-1 type team to me,” he said after watching film of their final two games earlier this week. “Coach (Jack) Luettke has been coaching at that school for 29 years or so and he runs a good program, we know that.”
The Bobcats are an option-attack team who relies heavily on the smarts and athleticism of quarterback Travis Pant.
Pant completed 50 percent of his passes for 922 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year, while also leading the team with 555 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
“We know he’s a very good athlete, you just look at the stats and you see they’ve thrown the ball pretty well and he’s kind of their leading rusher as well,” said Bailey, who knows Pant from facing him as a pitcher in baseball. “He likes to keep the ball and good things happen when he has the ball for them, so he’s definitely a key.”
To call fellow Bobcat Jake Dupree Pant’s “favorite target” would be an understatement, as Dupree caught 37 of his 69 completions this season, for 544 yards and seven scores.
“Any time you have a receiver who has 37 catches and the speed that Jake Dupree shows, he’s definitely a threat at any time,” Bailey said.
They have quite a few different halfbacks who get carries, with Cody Donnelly seeing more action than any of the others, getting around 11 attempts per game. Bailey said the Bobcat backs appear to be quick with a tendency to hit the line of scrimmage fast.
“I would say (they have) quickness like some of our kids or kind of like some of the Jonesville kids, but hopefully they don’t run as hard as Jonesville did,” he said.
Bailey said his defense is going to have to be focused and on top of its game, but it’s not like his players haven’t seen something similar to what Whiteford is going to throw at them.
“Fortunately there’s a team in our conference that runs a similar offense in Athens, and although they didn’t feature quite the same kind of running back…we’ve seen backs of their caliber and we’ve seen their offense, just not the two together,” he said. “We’ll have to make adjustments as the game goes on. It’s pretty much like any offense you run into — it’s hard to simulate in practice as effective as the team is going to run it and often it takes a series or two for the defense to adjust to it at game speed.”
Bailey said to have success containing the passing game a strong pass rush is the best medicine and he needs his play-makers like Alex Eastwood to get outside quickly so guys like Dupree can’t get too far downfield.
“Actually I think our pass defense has played really well. Concord, they were 9-of-30 and we had three picks…we would take that again Friday night,” he said. “(Whiteford) averages (throwing the ball) about 16 times a game, so if they had to throw it 30 times in the game that means we’re doing a good job against the run.”
On the other side of the ball the Bobcats seem to subscribe to a philosophy similar to the Rangers: focus on taking away your opponent’s greatest strength.
Bailey said they played a 4-3 formation against a Whitmore Lake team who runs a spread offense and they lined up in more of a 5-4 scheme against Morenci in week nine, a team who is traditionally a Power-I running offense.
The Bobcats defensive line is somewhat prototypical for a Division 7 team, with a few of the 175-180 pound types mixed in with a lineman who weighs in at 260.
Bailey said they are very aggressive up front, similar to Edon, who Reading shut out last week, and he expects they have very good field awareness because of their ability to play to their opponents’ strengths.
“That means they probably have some intelligent players on the field and the coaching staff has to spend a lot of time developing the game-plan and the kids have to buy into it and recognize it when they’re out on the field,” he said.
The Bobcats will have their hands full whatever the case might be, with the Big Eight’s leading rusher Brian Rauth on the opposing side, and Rangers quarterback Joe Hubbard, who has a completion percentage in the mid-60s.
The Rangers are also a squad full of athletes who have a very low tolerance and brief history when it comes to losing. The Rangers have won 23 straight regular season games and were state semifinalists last year.
Bailey hopes those intangibles make a difference.
“I hope it plays a lot,” he said. “Our guys are confident — they aren’t cocky confident, they just have a lot of belief in their abilities and their teammates abilities — and they trust each other and we’ve had a good week of preparation. That’s not a whole lot different than any game we went in to.”