A matchup tonight between the Denver Post's top-ranked football teams in Colorado's 3A classification could mean more for the loser than the winner.
Since 2002, the loser of the regular-season matchup between the Rifle and Palisade football teams has more often than not advanced further in the state playoffs. The most recent time was last season, when the Bears snuck past the Bulldogs in Grand Junction, but watched Palisade reach the 3A semifinals following a loss in the state quarterfinals.
"We always joke around and say things like, 'I hope we lose this game so we can make it to the finals'," Palisade coach John Arledge said, laughing.
All joking aside, it is a matchup that pits the top-ranked Bears (5-0 overall, 3-0 3A Western Slope League) against the No. 2 Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0) in a game that could determine the league championship and, potentially, a top seed in the 3A state playoffs. Kickoff is set for 7 tonight at Grand Junction's Stoker Stadium.
Of course, losing this game isn't the goal of either team. A win, however, would be a good measuring tool for either coaching staff on the progress their team has made.
"This is how we view it," Rifle coach Damon Wells said. "We know that if we can beat Palisade, we can play with just about anybody. To us, the importance of the Palisade game is ... that we're playing a quality football team. That probably brings a little extra meaning to it."
Historically, extra meaning has come to the opponent that came up on the short end. In 2004, the Bears lost their regular-season game to the Bulldogs and went on to win the state championship after Palisade lost in the state semis.
But extra meaning comes in today's matchup from two of the state's best rushing games and defenses. Palisade and Rifle have combined to allow just 45 points between them (Rifle 12, Palisade 33), and both possess big-play capabilities from their ball carriers.
"It's going to come down to who makes the most mistakes, who can make the big play or who just happens to get caught out of position," Arledge said. "There could very well be just a handful of plays that determine the outcome of the game."
One player with big-play capabilities for the Bears is senior running back Ryan Moeller. His 20 touchdowns is tops in all Colorado classifications, and his 1,307 rushing yards rank him second in the state behind the 1,373 compiled by Branson Mitchell of Mancos, which plays 8-man football.
That total came despite just a 77-yard performance on nine carries in the Bears' 55-0 win against Battle Mountain last Friday, as Rifle had short fields to work with much of the game. But Rifle's diverse running game has shown itself in recent weeks with performances from Kellin Leigh (389 yards on 38 carries) and Isaac Rider (112 yards on 18 carries).
"Obviously the focus is always going to be on Ryan," Wells said. "But our kids have demonstrated that there are other weapons, too."
Palisade quarterback Luke McLean is an efficient passer, completing 36-of-49 tosses (73.5 percent) for 465 yards and seven touchdowns. But he's also an efficient rusher, as his 387 yards on the ground is second on the team to running back Daulton Hannigan's 575. Hannigan, who looks smaller than his 5-foot-6, 155-pound listing on Palisade's roster, is a quick runner with the ability to accelerate.
"His size doesn't matter to us," Wells said. "They've had a lot of good backs come out of that program in all shapes and sizes."
Hannigan has helped Palisade average 289.4 rushing yards and 42 points per game against its first five opponents, which include 5A Grand Junction Central and 4A Durango. The Bulldogs' matchup today against the Bears might be the toughest this season - Rifle has shut out three of its five opponents and has forced 12 turnovers this season.
"They run the ball well, they tackle well, they do everything well," Arledge said. "We might have to play a perfect game to beat them."