Nipomo head coach Tony Dodge had a tongue-in-cheek message for his athletic director Russ Edwards at practice on Thursday concerning the team’s non-league schedule.
“Thanks a lot, coach Edwards,” Dodge said with a sarcastic smile.
Nipomo’s schedule reads like a who’s who of football on the Central Coast. Nipomo has taken on Lompoc, Santa Ynez and Atascadero and will host Arroyo Grande (4-1), which is ranked second in the Southern Section’s Northern Division, on Friday night.
The combined record of the Titans’ top-four opponents heading into Week 6 is 16-3. Nipomo (2-3) has the toughest schedule (by far) out of the top-25 teams in the Southern Section Division Northwest, according to MaxPreps.com.
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“But hey, it worked last year,” Dodge said.
He’s right. Nipomo had the exact same non-league schedule when it won the first CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division football championship in school history.
“Strength of schedule does nothing but benefit us for the future,” Dodge said. “I really don’t think we will see anybody as good as (Arroyo Grande) and Atascadero the rest of the year.”
But even when the competition drops off, Dodge says the team still has some holes to fill.
“We really want to see improvement, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Dodge said.
It’s a good place to start. While the tough schedule hasn’t changed from last season, the Nipomo offense has. Last year, the Titans averaged five touchdowns per game. So far this season, they’ve scored two and a half per game. A 400 yard per game average last season has dropped to 247.
Dodge believes those numbers will improve, in part due to an offense line on the mend. Senior center and leader Ely-Jah Pu’a, who returned to full strength last week, is one of three starting offensive linemen back after injury. The Titans now have four of their original five starters healthy.
A healthy front five will help protect quarterback Gavin Hall, but Dodge says the key to his quarterback’s success is mostly mental.
“He just needs to relax and let the game come to him,” Dodge said. “I always tell him you’re a facilitator, you’re not the star.”
This week, Nipomo’s toughest test will come on defense.
Camarillo is the only team to hold the Eagles under 40 points in a game this season. It’s also Arroyo Grande’s only loss.
“We have a lot of confidence in our defense,” Nipomo defensive lineman David Leon said. “If we hold them under 20, I think it’s going to be a really good game.”
Easier said than done.
“(Arroyo Grande) is a very balanced team,” Dodge said. “They scare the (expletive) out of me because they can run the ball and throw the ball.”
Arroyo Grande is averaging 212 yards rushing and 175 passing per game this season.
Dodge said he will look to Nipomo free safety Isaac Bausley, whom he calls “a natural, good football player” to limit the Eagles explosive plays.
“I give him a lot of credit for the success of this defense,” Dodge said of Bausley. “When people break a run, he’s making the tackle at 8 to 10 yards instead of 30 yards. He’s saving those big plays.”
Bausley, who aims to be aggressive on run plays, says he can’t be too aggressive.
“If it’s third and long, I just wait for anything tricky,” said Bausley, who is second on the team with 45 tackles. “I get all the trick plays.”
Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen has been known to mix in a trick play here and there, like a pitch pass thrown for a touchdown by running back Bradley Mickey in the game against Camarillo.
Learning the quirks of another good football team is just another step for Nipomo as it works to defend its title. Nipomo begins league play at Morro Bay on Oct. 9.
“What we’ve really learned is that we can compete with anybody,” Dodge said.