Palisade Bulldogs rush past Rifle Bears for league title
The Palisade Bulldogs, in a winner-take-all matchup with the Rifle Bears, laid claim to the 3A Western Slope League football title in front of a capacity crowd on Friday night at Bears Stadium, utilizing a fast-paced ground game to notch a 55-33 victory.
A mild, early November evening greeted both teams, but it was the Bears that must have done the better job of warming up as they put a mark in the scoring column first with a 51-yard reverse touchdown run from junior Joel Lopez. Rifle’s initial drive was helped along by a 13-yard run from senior quarterback Luke Ellis and a key offside penalty on Palisade as the Bears were trying to convert a fourth down attempt at their own 42-yard line.
The visiting Bulldogs (8-2, 5-0 WSL), feeling some heat of their own, took just three plays from scrimmage to turn a 7-0 deficit into a 14-7 lead.
Following the Rifle kickoff, Palisade sophomore quarterback Cameron Tucker took the first offensive snap of the evening and promptly rumbled 66 yards through a big hole on the right side of the line as the Rifle fans sat in stunned silence. The PAT by Brian Sargent, who has not missed an extra point attempt on the season, was good, and the score was knotted at 7-7.
After the Bears were forced to punt the ball away, Palisade senior running back Austin Bernal took the ball in the gut from his quarterback and out-raced all Rifle defenders 58 yards to the end zone. It was the second play of the Bulldog’s second drive of the night, and now the Bears trailed by a 14-7 count with 4:18 to play in the first quarter.
Very early in the second period, with Rifle unable to slow down the Palisade rushing game, Bernal would score again on a 38-yard run after a nice fake and pitch by Tucker as the Bulldogs gained some breathing room at 21-7.
Rifle wasn’t about to go away, though, as senior Camron Shepherd netted a 38-yard rushing attempt and then hauled in a 30-yard pass from Ellis to set the Bears up at the Palisade 7 yard line. Ellis hooked up with Shepherd again, this time in the end zone, and Rifle was up off the canvas and back in the game at 21-14.
Unfortunately, Rifle’s fortunes would then take a turn for the worse as Palisade answered the Bears’ comeback attempt with two more touchdowns prior to the half. Sophomore Joseph Alejo hauled in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Tucker to culminate a six-play, 61-yard drive. Then, following a long gainer by Bernal on a counter play, Tucker kept the ball himself and ran through the middle of the line to make it 34-14. Palisade would attempt a two-point conversion that failed.
Bernal, a one-man wrecking crew, rushed for 180 yards on seven carries in the first half. Tucker had 98 yards on six carries.
“Anytime you face a big deficit it certainly doesn’t make things any easier on you,” said Rifle Head Coach Damon Wells, speaking of his team’s uphill battle in the second half. “We still felt like we could move the football and score, though.”
Palisade fullback Terrance Williams got into the act as he chewed up some yardage on the ground to start the third quarter, getting the Bulldogs near the Rifle goal line. Tucker finished things up with a quarterback sneak for a score as the Bulldogs lead grew to 41-14 at the 8:27 juncture of the third.
Rifle got a touchdown from junior Tanner Vines in the third quarter and some highlight reel play from Lopez during the entire second half as he rushed for several long gainers, including a 73-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, but the big early deficit was too much for the Bears to overcome. Lopez finished the game with 16 carries for 254 yards. Almost unheard of, the two teams combined for 1,090 yards of total offense for the track meet-style contest.
The Bears (8-2, 4-1 WSL) who honored 18 seniors prior to the game, will now await the 3A state football playoff seedings that will be released on Sunday afternoon.
“We’re incredibly happy that we are in the playoffs,” Wells said. “We’ll just try to get better, represent our community well, and hopefully make some good things happen.”
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