A lot alike: Palisade meets mirror image of itself against Pueblo Central
The Palisade High School football team has never pretended to be something it’s not.
The Bulldogs are a rough and tough group that likes to run the football offensively and be physical on defense.
Physical play is exactly what the Bulldogs will need to stop top-seeded Pueblo Central (10-0) in Saturday’s Class 3A first-round playoff game at 1 p.m.
The Wildcats are a run-first team, led by running back Keanu Valdez, who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
Palisade coach John Arledge said the key for Palisade will be playing a mistake-free game.
“We can’t have any turnovers and we have to score early,” Arledge said. “If we can be the front-runner and get them into a position they aren’t used to, I think we have a good shot.”
Although Palisade finished with its worst regular-season record (6-4) this decade, on the field the Bulldogs have been just as competitive as always. The Bulldogs’ four losses came by a total of 25 points, and Palisade has given up only 135 points.
“If you are going to go far at any level, you have to have a great defense,” Arledge said. “Our kids are tough and they run to the football.”
Arledge orchestrates the defense, and fans can expect to never see a zone blitz or overly complex coverage schemes.
Arledge said the basics of his defensive philosophy are being more physical than the other team.
“We aren’t very complicated,” Arledge said. “We don’t blitz that much; there are games where we won’t blitz once. So we are very formation-driven. It’s not based on a lot of guessing. I’m not a very good guesser anyway.”
Palisade’s defense comes down to the fundamentals of football. Arledge said he wants to have a defense that’s able to keep the Bulldogs in a game, which this year’s group has done. In all of Palisade’s four losses, the Bulldogs were within a touchdown in the second half.
“It comes down to hitting someone solid, and our kids do that real well,” Arledge said. “They understand they have stay in the game and keep our offense in good position.”
Nick Stephanus is a prototypical Palisade defensive tackle. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Stephanus uses his strength and speed on the inside to cause havoc whether a team is throwing or running the ball.
“We are a really physical defense that likes to fly around,” Stephanus said. “We are young, but we play with passion.”
Stephanus gives Palisade a game changer on the interior defensive line. Arledge said the Bulldogs have to move him around to create mismatches up front.
“He sets the tone, and he has to flip around to try to stay ahead of the guy across from him,” Arledge said. “Nick’s a tough kid to block and control.”
Along with Stephanus, Arledge said it’s been solid play from players such as free safety Jamr Rhodes and linebackers Terry Williams, Luke McClain and Kelly Davis that’s helped create another tough Palisade defense.
“I think our kids like playing defense because they like the physical contact,” Arledge said. “I don’t have to sell it.”
The Western Slope Conference produced three other playoff teams, including Delta (8-2), which earned its first playoff berth since 1999. The Panthers are the No. 9 seed and play at No. 8 D’Evelyn at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Although the Panthers haven’t had much success in the postseason, first-year head coach Ben Johnson was the defensive coordinator on Olathe’s state championship team last season.
Johnson said a big part of the Panthers’ success this season has been because of the upperclassmen.
“The senior leadership has been great,” Johnson said. “I’m very proud of the kids, and we want to make an impact in the playoffs.”
D’Evelyn (8-2) lost its two games by a total of three points. Johnson said he’s preparing the Panthers for a tough game.
“I think D’Evelyn is a very good football team,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to stop their spread (offense) and tackle well.”
Two WSC teams are hosting first-round games. Conference champion Steamboat Springs earned the No. 4 seed plays Berthoud at 7 tonight.
Last year’s state champion, Glenwood Springs, is seeded No. 7 and hosts No. 10 Elizabeth at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Palisade vs. Pueblo Central
Saturday 1 p.m., Dutch Clark Stadium, Pueblo
RADIO: KTMM-AM (1340)
RECORDS: Palisade 6-4; Pueblo Central 10-0
LAST WEEK: Palisade had a week off after finishing the Western Slope Conference season 5-2; Pueblo Central defeated Pueblo County 42-12
GAME NOTES: The teams had two common opponents; Palisade lost to Woodland Park 17-16 and to Pueblo County 20-7 in its first two games; Pueblo Central defeated both teams, 42-14 over Woodland Park in week two and last week’s victory over the Hornets. The Wildcats have scored more than 40 points four times. Pueblo Central is a ground-oriented team, rushing for 2,376 yards on the season — more than half of that (1,223) coming from running back Keanu Valdez, who averages more than 61⁄2 yards per carry and has 17 touchdowns. They’ve passed for 795 yards, Bryam Brown is quarterback Max Lerille’s favorite target with 18 receptions for 243 yards and one touchdown.