Bears fall to Bulldogs in 3A WSL title game
It’s never an easy trip to Ralph Stocker Stadium on the campus of Colorado Mesa University, and that proved especially true Friday night for a banged-up Rifle Bears team as they fell to the Palisade Bulldogs, 49-14, in a battle for the 3A Western Slope League championship.
Rifle Head Coach Damon Wells and his coaching staff knew heading into the matchup that it would be a very tough game against a big, physical Bulldog team, which lived up to the billing right away against the Bears.
Despite running just three offensive plays in the first four minutes of the game, the Bulldogs raced out to an early 14-0 lead in the game. On the second play from scrimmage for the Bears following a pass interference call on Palisade to start the game, junior running back Camron Shepherd looked to bounce his first carry outside. Unfortunately for Shepherd, he ran right into the waiting arms of Palisade junior Austin Bernal, who ripped the ball out of Shepherd’s arms and raced 31 yards the other way for a Bulldog touchdown.
The Bulldogs came right back on defense the next Rifle series, forcing a quick three-and-out to set up a three-play Palisade scoring drive as standout senior quarterback P.D. Riddle picked up 11 yards on the ground before finding fellow senior Prescott Price on the very next play on a terrific option pitch for the 34-yard score, putting the Bulldogs up 14-0 just over three minutes into the game.
Rifle seemed to get things going on offense on the ensuing drive as the Bears turned to senior running back Blaine Vance to do the dirty work on the ground. He did just that by picking up Rifle’s first first down of the game before the Bears ultimately had to punt the ball back to the Bulldogs.
Five plays later — following a big 41-yard strike from Riddle to Price to put the Bulldogs at the Rifle 2-yard line — Bernal scored his first offensive touchdown of the game to make it 21-0 Palisade in the first quarter.
Following another three-and-out from Rifle, Palisade struck quickly as Riddle found Bernal from 30 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to make it 28-0 Palisade, leaving the Rifle fans in attendance stunned as to what had transpired in the first 12 minutes of the game.
Rifle seemed to get something started on offense as Vance picked up 15 yards — the longest play of the game for the Bears to that point — before ultimately turning the ball over on downs to the Bulldogs near midfield, setting up the quick-strike Palisade offense on the Rifle side of the field midway through the second quarter.
Four plays later Bernal scored his third offensive touchdown of the night — fourth overall — to put Palisade up 35-0 as the junior raced up the middle for the 9-yard score. The Bulldogs got into the red zone on the legs of Riddle, who gained 15 and 20 yards on back-to-back carries.
Down 35-0, the Bears went into the half looking for answers as to how to get back into the game in the second half. On the first Palisade drive to open the second half, the Rifle defense found an answer as the Bears recovered Riddle’s first fumble of the game, setting up shop at the Palisade 31-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Bears they couldn’t do anything with the great field position, turning the ball back over on downs.
However, on Palisade’s first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, senior Tanner Pratt put the ball on the ground, allowing the Bears to jump on it near midfield, which seemed to wake the Bears up.
Junior quarterback Luke Ellis connected with Shepherd on an impressive 28-yard pass, causing a stir in the Rifle stands as the Bears seemed to find the right gear against the Palisade defense. Vance then rushed for 5 and 8 yards before Shepherd bounced off tackle and plowed into the end zone off the right side of the line for the 5-yard score, cutting the Palisade lead to 35-7 following sophomore Eduardo Ruiz’s extra point.
With a touchdown and some momentum in hand, Wells called a perfectly-timed onside kick that the Bears recovered, breathing new life into the sideline.
However, the Bears would turn the ball over on downs following an Ellis incompletion.
“I was definitely pleased with our fight,” Wells said. “Our boys haven’t been in this situation very often, so I certainly was proud of their effort and response when being down in such a way.”
Palisade would add two more scores as Riddle found pay dirt from 2 yards out late in the third quarter, while Bernal scored his fifth touchdown of the game on a 15-yard burst early in the fourth quarter.
Rifle wouldn’t quit though despite the big deficit. Credit to the Bears who marched 80 yards late in the fourth quarter as Shepherd gained 16 yards on the ground before Vance followed up with a 12-yard run. Shepherd then raced 24 yards, setting up Vance’s 18-yard romp up the gut to cap of the scoring on the night.
With the loss Rifle finishes the regular season 8-2 overall, 4-1 3A WSL, good enough for second in the league. Despite losing to Palisade, Rifle punched its ticket for the 3A state playoffs yet again, where the Bears will await their playoff seeding announcement on Sunday.
“Every year it’s no secret that our primary goal is just to get into the playoffs,” Wells said. “And we’ve achieved that goal. You know, I say frequently that you get a t-shirt for winning the league championship, and we give them plenty; they’re alright on t-shirts. But it’s absolutely a catch-22. Obviously we wanted to win the game, but all the credit goes to Palisade. What happened, happened for a reason; they’re a good football team and they’re a better football team than we are right now, but I think that we know as well as anybody that once you get into the playoffs that anything can happen.”
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