Rifle blows past Delta, 47-29, in battle of top 2 2A teams

Coming into Friday night’s showdown at Bears Stadium in Rifle, the Rifle Bears and Delta Panthers football teams were ranked 1-2 in the state in the 2A coaches poll. Something had to give, and it was the Delta defense — which had given up just 14 points all season, as the Bears rolled to an impressive 47-29 win in 2A Western Slope League play in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Opening up the highly anticipated league matchup, Delta put together one heck of an offensive drive, marching to the Rifle 13-yard line in 16 plays, but the Rifle defense buckled down, holding the Panthers to a field goal.

Believe it or not, that early stand was a turning point early in the game as the Bears came out on offense and went 77 yards in 10 plays — all on the ground — as standout senior running back Levi Warfel scored from eight yards out on the second play of the second quarter, giving Rifle a 7-3 lead.

Then, things fell apart for the Panthers.

Trailing by four, the Panthers called an option to the left between junior quarterback Nolan Bynum and senior running back Ku La Moo. The pitch from Bynum was too far behind Moo, resulting in a 14-yard loss after the senior running back jumped on the loose ball. That early loss put Delta in an early hole on the drive, resulting in a quick 3-and-out, giving the ball back to the Bears.

Seven plays later, following runs of 14 yards from junior Talon Cordova and five yards from Warfel, senior quarterback Holden Stutsman snuck in from a yard out, making it 14-3 Rifle with 6:21 left in the first half.

Disaster struck again for the Panthers a few plays later.

Facing a 4th and eight near midfield, the Panthers appeared to punt the ball away cleanly. A late whistle was blown for false start, forcing the Panthers to punt again. On the rekick, the snap sailed over punter Alex Abila’s head, coming to a stop at the Delta 9-yard line where Rifle recovered.

Three plays later Warfel scored from a yard out, giving the Bears a 21-3 lead in the game that had a lot of hype surrounding it leading up to kickoff.

“I’m incredibly proud of our boys; they did everything that we asked them to do,” Damon Wells, Rifle’s veteran head coach said. “Our kids are just selfless. We did a lot of things tonight that required a lot of discipline, and our kids sacrificed a lot tonight and were willing to do whatever it takes.”

Down three scores with a little under 4 minutes left in the first half, Delta needed to get something going again on offense, so the Panthers turned to Moo on the ground. The senior rushed for 24 yards and a first down, setting up a trick-play touchdown for Delta, as Moo pitched the ball back to senior wide receiver Nathan Workman on a reverse, who then threw deep to the back right corner of the end zone to senior Skylar Kraii, making it a 21-9 game after a failed extra point.

That’s when things got a bit dicey for Wells and the Bears. A well-called screen to Warfel got them out of harms way though.

Following a 16-yard run on first down by senior Kenny Tlaxcala, Rifle was called for an ineligible man down field on a screen pass, pushing the Bears into a 3rd and long situation. A short run on 3rd down by Tlaxcala put the Bears in a tough spot near midfield late in the first half. Rifle could have punted the ball away to try and pin the Panthers’ offense deep, but Wells had other ideas.

The Bears called for a screen right to Warfel, who caught the pass from Stutsman and weaved 39 yards down the right sideline for the score, sending the home crowd into a frenzy as the Bears made it a 27-9 game.

“I closed my eyes and pointed at the play sheet,” Wells said. “Luckily for me, it worked out in our favor.

Holding a 3-score lead at the half, Rifle appeared to be in control, but the Panthers’ defense came up with huge stop to open the second half, giving the Delta offense some new life.

Bynum found Workman for 25 yards deep into Rifle territory, setting up a 1-yard touchdown by senior Brandon Butler a few plays later. Bynum then found Workman on the 2-point try, making it a 27-15 game, sparking a small sense of hope for a comeback on the Delta sideline.

Tlaxcala and the Bears tried to put an end to that comeback hope quickly as the senior back rushed for 30 yards to midfield on the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, but a couple of holding penalties on the next two plays ended Rifle’s drive, giving the Panthers the ball back.

Two plays later, Tlaxcala made good on that end to Delta’s comeback hopes, stepping in front of a Bynum pass up the seam intended for Kraai, returning it to the Delta 32-yard line.

“Kenny’s a heck of a story; he has as high of a football IQ as any player I’ve been around,” Wells said.

“I saw the receiver cut so I knew it was going to him because the quarterback’s eyes never left him,” Tlaxcala said after the win. “We knew watching film that they could throw; that quarterback has an arm. I’m just glad I could make a play for my teammates.”

Following Tlaxcla’s interception, Stutsman threw a screen to Warfel again on 4th and 6 that went for 16 yards. After the 4th down conversion the Bears made it 33-17 as Stutsman snuck in again from a yard out.

Delta didn’t go away though, again cutting the deficit to 10 points as Bynum found senior Hunter Hughes for a 26-yard touchdown, but the Delta defense just couldn’t come up with a stop late.

Warfel sprinted 69 yards down the right sideline to set up another 1-yard touchdown by Stutsman that made it 40-23 Rifle. A quick 3-and-out by Delta gave the Bears the ball back, and Warfel ripped off a 58-yarder for a touchdown, making it 47-23 Rifle.

The Panthers added a late touchdown as Bynum hooked up with Hughes for a 47-yard touchdown, but it was too little, too late as the Bears came away with a huge win at home, putting them in the drivers seat for a repeat league championship.

“I don’t know what this means for us, honestly,” Tlaxcala said. “We still have a lot to work on moving forward, but our offense played great tonight, and so did our defense. It’s a good win for us.”

Rifle (6-0, 2-0 in 2A WSL) travels to Aspen next Friday for another tough 2A WSL matchup. Last year the Skiers stunned the Bears at home, handing Rifle its only regular season loss.

“I think we move on from this one tonight and get ready for a good Aspen team in two ways: first, it’s our culture and that’s what we do; our kids know that,” Wells said. “Second, we’ve been blessed to play in so many big games over the last decade that it’s just business as usual for us. We know we have to play these types of games to get where we wan to go.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.