3A state football playoffs: Mirror images face off in semifinals
NO. 10 FORT MORGAN (10-2) AT NO. 6 RIFLE (11-1)
What: Semifinal round of the Class 3A state football playoffs.
When: 1 p.m Saturday.
Where: Bears Stadium, Rifle
Radio: KNAM, 1490-AM, and KMTS, 99.1 and 99.5-FM.
Forecast: High with kickoff is expected to approach the low 40s with a 50 percent chance of rain.
How they got here: Rifle defeated 11th-seeded Northridge 61-13 in the first round on Nov. 8, then defeated No. 3-seeded Roosevelt 15-0 in the second round Nov. 15 in Johnstown. Fort Morgan defeated No. 7 Holy Family 35-18, then earned a 13-7 victory over second-seeded Evergreen on Nov. 15.
What’s at stake: Saturday’s winner advances to play in the Nov. 29 state championship game against either fourth-seeded Pueblo East (9-3) or top-seeded Discovery Canyon (12-0) at a site to be determined.
RIFLE — Harrison Chisum was pretty up front when he described the Fort Morgan High School football team on Thursday.
“We have a bunch of blue-collar, hard-working kids on this team,” the Mustangs coach said. “These kids work for everything they have, and … they’re a great group of kids who get the job done without a lot of flash.”
Rifle fans might see those comments and figure that the Bears are playing a mirror image of themselves in Saturday’s Class 3A semifinals. Rifle over the years has prided itself on the work ethic of its players under the premise that the hard work will eventually pay off.
It’s paid off to the tune of both the Bears (11-1 overall) and the Mustangs (10-2) being two of the final four teams remaining in the 3A state playoffs. And one of them will get to make their work pay off even further when sixth-seeded Rifle hosts 10th-seeded Fort Morgan for a berth in the 3A state title game. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Bears Stadium.
“What you’ve got now are two quality, hard-working teams,” Rifle coach Damon Wells said. “They had to put in a lot of work to get here, but so did we.”
The Bears definitely had to work hard to beat the third-seeded Roosevelt Roughriders 15-0 in Johnstown on Nov. 15, as Rifle wasn’t able to find the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Mustangs had to work hard to hold on to keep the lead against second-seeded Evergreen, winning 13-7 after opening the game with a 13-0 lead.
Now, those same Mustangs will play against a team they feel that, on paper and on film, looks very similar to themselves.
“Very similar,” Chisum said. “I’m very impressed with how they look on film. They’re very tough, hard-nosed and physical and have an outstanding coaching staff. We’ll have a lot to take care of.”
To be sure, Rifle comes into Saturday’s matchup outscoring its opponents 494-104 over the course of the season, with the Bears’ only loss coming in an 18-10 setback against Palisade on Oct. 10. They’re averaging close to 300 rushing yards per game while using four primary running backs, but the 987 passing yards senior quarterback Layton Stutsman has exceeds the passing yardage of any Rifle quarterback this decade.
Then there’s Rifle’s four running backs — Brock Clark, Brooks Pressler, Ty Leyba and Blaine Vance — who have accounted for most of Rifle’s rushing yardage.
“They’re very deceptive,” Chisum said of the Bears’ Wing-T offense. “It’s not like you can go to the kids and say ‘Watch No. 8 [Clark],’ because he’s not always going to have the ball. They’ve got a lot of weapons.”
Then again, so do the Mustangs.
The biggest of those weapons coming out of Fort Morgan’s Power-I offensive set has been sophomore Tate Kembel, who has accounted for 1,182 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 148 carries. He’s also done that in 11 games — Chusum said Kembel didn’t play during the Mustangs’ 35-3 season-opening loss to Brush simply because of his youth. Senior quarterback Joey Schneider is 54-for-113 passing for 1,016 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season, but three of those picks were thrown during Fort Morgan’s Aug. 29 season opener.
Wells, however, sang high praises of Fort Morgans’ “big, tough fullback,” Toby McBride (6-foot-3, 235 pounds), who has accounted for 515 rushing yard and 14 TDs this year. He also doubles as Fort Morgan’s top linebacker, recording a team-high 93 tackles with nine quarterback sacks.
What worries Wells the most, however, is the run that Fort Morgan is on. The Mustangs closed the regular season with four consecutive wins following a 22-16 loss to Lutheran on Oct. 4, then followed that with playoff wins over seventh-seeded Holy Family (35-18) and second-seeded Evergreen.
“It really seems like they’re playing about as well as they’ve played all season,” Wells said. “They’ve won six straight games, and all it can take to be successful in the playoffs is for your kids to get a little bit of confidence and really roll with it. We know that. We’ve been there.”
That definitely was the case for the Bears during the 2004 season. Wells was an assistant coach at Rifle when they won the 3A state title as the 16th seed in the 16-team playoff bracket.
On Saturday, the winner will advance to play a higher seed in either Colorado Springs or Pueblo on Nov. 29. Top-seeded Discovery Canyon (12-0) hosts fourth-seeded Pueblo East (9-3) in the other semifinal of the day.
Suffice to say, both teams might feel like an underdog already. It makes the proverbial list of similarities even longer.
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